How Exercise Can Improve Your Academic Performance

Is This the Missing Key to Your Success in College?

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You already know that regular exercise is important for controlling weight and avoiding a variety of health conditions. But it can also improve your academic performance. And, if you're a distance learning student, you may miss out on some of the opportunities for physical activity afforded to more traditional students who routinely walk around campus. But it’s well worth the effort to plan for it schedule exercise into your daily regimen. 

Regular Exercisers Have Higher GPAs and Graduation Rates

Jim Fitzsimmons, Ed.D, director of Campus Recreation and Wellness at the University of Nevada, Reno, tells ThoughtCo, “What we know is students who exercise regularly—at least 3 times a week—at an intensity of eight times resting (7.9 METS) graduate at higher rates, and earn, on average, a full GPA point higher than their counterparts who do not exercise.”

The study, published in the Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Medicine, defines physical activity as at least 20 minutes of vigorous movement (at least 3 days a week) that produces sweat and heavy breathing, or moderate movement for at least 30 minutes that doesn’t produce sweat and heavy breathing (at least 5 days a week).

Think you don’t have time to exercise? Mike McKenzie, PhD, chair of Exercise Physiology Sports Medicine at Winston-Salem State University, and president-elect of the Southeast American College of Sports Medicine, tells ThoughtCo, “A group led by Dr. Jennifer Flynn investigated this during her time at Saginaw Valley State and found that students who studied over three hours per day were 3.5 times more likely to be exercisers.”

And McKenzie says, “Students with a GPA above 3.5 were 3.2 times more likely to be regular exercisers than those with GPAs under 3.0.”

Over a decade ago, McKenzie said researchers discovered a link between exercise, concentration, and focus in children. “A group at Oregon State led by Dr. Stewart Trost found significantly improved concentration, memory, and behavior in school-aged children compared to kids who had additional lesson time.” 

More recently, a study by Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions reveals that even short “microbursts” of physical activity throughout the day can have positive effects. Jennifer Turgiss, DrPH, vice president of Behavioral Science and Analytics at Johnson & Johnson Health and Wellness Solutions, tells ThoughtCo that sitting for long periods of time – which college students are prone to do—can have a negative health effect.

“However, our study found that five-minute bouts of walking every hour had a positive impact on mood, fatigue, and hunger at the end of a day,” Turgiss says. 

This may be particularly beneficial to students who also work a full-time job and study in the evening and nighttime hours. “Having more mental and physical energy at the end of a day that requires a lot of sitting, such as a student’s day, can leave them with more personal resources to do other activities,” Turgiss concludes.

So How Does Exercise Improve Academic Performance?

In his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, John Ratey, a Harvard professor of psychiatry, writes, “Exercise stimulates our gray matter to produce Miracle-Gro for the brain.” A study by researchers at the University of Illinois found that physical activity increased the ability of elementary school students to pay attention, and also increased their academic performance.

Exercise lowers stress and anxiety while increasing focus. “Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF) which plays a role in memory is significantly elevated after an intense bout of exercise,” according to Fitzgerald. “This is a fairly deep subject with both physiologic and psychological factors at play,” he explains.

In addition to affecting a student’s cognitive skills, exercise improves academic performance in other ways. Dr. Niket Sonpal, assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine, tells ThoughtCo that exercise causes three human physiology and behavior changes. 

1. Exercise Requires Time Management

Sonpal believes that students who don’t schedule a time to exercise tend to be unstructured and also don’t schedule time to study. “That is why gym class in high school was so important; it was practice for the real world,” Sonpal says. “Scheduling personal workout time forces college students to also schedule study time and this teaches them the importance of block timing, and prioritization of their studies.”

2. Exercise Combats Stress

Several studies have proven the link between exercise and stress. “Vigorous exercise a few times a week reduces your stress levels, and likely reduces cortisol, which is a stress hormone,” Sonpal says. He explains that these reductions are vitally important to college students. “Stress hormones inhibit memory production and your ability to sleep: two key things needed to score high on exams.” 

3. Exercise Induces Better Sleep

Cardiovascular exercise leads to a better quality of sleep. “Better sleep means moving your studies from short term to long term memory during REM,” Sonpal says. “That way, on test day you remember that teeny tiny fact that gets you the scores you need.”

It’s tempting to think you’re so busy that you can’t afford to exercise. However, the exact opposite is true: you can’t afford not to exercise. Even in you can't commit to 30-minute sessions, 5- or 10-minute spurts during the course of the day could make a significant difference in your academic performance.

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Williams, Terri. "How Exercise Can Improve Your Academic Performance." ThoughtCo, Sep. 1, 2021, Williams, Terri. (2021, September 1). How Exercise Can Improve Your Academic Performance. Retrieved from Williams, Terri. "How Exercise Can Improve Your Academic Performance." ThoughtCo. (accessed February 8, 2023).