Most research about brains and aerobic activity focuses on memory; physical fitness can help protect your mind from forgetting, especially as you age. Exercise also strengthens the connections in your gray matter and makes brains more flexible—good for learning and fighting off depression. North Carolina State University has taken the science a step further by looking at young people and how their exercise routines impact grades.
The study measured recreational activities for 20,000 students. And, researchers made two important discoveries:
- First, “For every extra hour that students exercised, their odds of graduating (or returning the following year) increased by 50 percent.” Activities included intramural sports, time at the rec center, or taking group exercise classes.
- Second, students had higher grade point averages when they exercised more. For each hour of physical activity a week, GPA went up .06 on the 4.0 scale.
Perhaps most surprising are the statistics about how much students actually exercise during the school year. North Carolina State, as well as campuses nationwide, spends big money on wellness and recreation centers. Such facilities look good in recruiting materials but they don’t come cheap.
In the exercise research from Dr. Heather Sanderson and Dr. Jason DeRousie, nearly 50% of students participate in recreation less than once a week. 16.7% never participate, and only 1.4% do these activities at least five times a week. College may be a time for studying, but students are less physically active than the public might expect.
Sanderson and DeRousie plan to seek further information about the effects of exercise on learning, pinpointing if certain activities are more beneficial. Other schools aren’t waiting that long and have started requiring students to do something, anything, to move more. Oral Roberts University is incorporating FitBits to track physical activity; others are taking a more holistic approach, looking at wellness as part of advisement and counseling.
The Harvard Health Letter reports that aerobic activity, unlike strength training, can help the hippocampus part of the brain grow. That area handles learning as well as verbal memory—skills crucial to college success. Then, there are the indirect benefits of exercising or doing recreation activities: sleeping better, decreasing stress, releasing feel-good endorphins, among others. All of those impacts help students learn better, retain more information, and perform at optimal levels.
North Carolina State University may have stumbled onto a new tool in the arsenal of ways to improve graduation rates, as well as help all students do their best work.