Ask The Expert

Why Sport And Exercise Are So Important For College And University Students

A group of experts explain why, in 2020, sport and regular exercise are more important than ever for college and university students

Sport and Exercise at University
(Photo: Adobe Stock)

With the ever changing challenges of modern life and the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, sport and exercise can provide a crucial mental and physical outlet for college and university students.

We asked a select group of experts for their take on the positive role sport and exercise can play on campus when it comes to the overall health and wellbeing of students.

Here’s what they said.

Sport Helps Us To Acknowledge And Appreciate Shared Goal And Common Struggles

Victoria Jackson, Sports Historian and Clinical Assistant Professor of History in the School of Historical, Philosophical, and Religious Studies at Arizona State University

More than one hundred years ago, at the turn of the twentieth century, when many college campuses were segregated by gender (and by race, depending on the nation), university presidents, professors, and student leaders championed the benefits and virtues of vigorous, outdoor, healthful pursuits, what American president Theodore Roosevelt championed as “the strenuous life.”

In many places of elite higher education, sport was part of a project of white manliness, and exclusivity, to train the next generation’s political, business, and military elite.

Today, college campuses are more inclusive spaces, and the project of the democratization of higher education is ongoing, and requiring active, ever-present work.

Promoting and championing sports and physical activity participation, and building a culture of inclusive, universal health and wellbeing should be central to the effort.

A university campus should serve as community center, not ivory tower; a welcoming gathering place and dynamic hub of engagement and activity.

While many universities (especially American ones) have excelled at welcoming fans in as sports spectators, all colleges could embrace the community service opportunity to invite local residents in as participants in play days, exercise and wellness programs, and recreation sports leagues.

When we play, compete, and sweat together (or volunteer our time and labor to create opportunities for others), strangers become neighbors and communities thrive.

In the twenty-first century we recognize education as a human right and tool of liberation, a radically different idea from one hundred years ago.

So too should sport and physical activity be embraced as universal human right, and what better place to bake in health and wellbeing programs than in school settings.

When we learn to use our bodies for ourselves, to feel and experience our own personal pleasure, growth, and strength, we are building a capacity to understand and value our power.

The lessons of power are big and small. We are less likely to experience feelings of insecurity, anxiety, guilt, and more, when we regularly expose ourselves to the discomfort and vulnerability that comes along with testing and pushing our bodies.

We are more likely to say ‘yes’ to new experiences and opportunities and in our personal and professional lives because we have been busy learning these lessons from regularly challenging ourselves on fields of play.

And the greatest lesson of power comes from what sport teaches us about humanity.

When we come together and use our bodies together, we see ourselves in others, and others in ourselves. We acknowledge and appreciate shared goals, and common struggles.

As an athlete myself, I hold hope for the future, in large part because of sport.

Athletics at University

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The Psychological And Physical Health Benefits Of Regular Exercise Are Clear

Thomas Plante, Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University

In a nutshell, there are lots of quality empirical research studies published in refereed professional outlets (including many that have come for my lab as well) that have highlighted the psychological and physical health benefits of regular exercise.

It has been well established that exercise can help with anxiety, depression and self esteem, not to mention help to control weight and so forth. Plus, the amount of exercise needed for these benefits are very doable. We are talking about taking brief walks not running marathons.

People may enjoy some types of exercise more than others and may have different goals and abilities. The message is basically that any movement is helpful and if people can just get into a regular exercise routine that works for them, then they can expect to secure benefits.

Covid-19 has complicated these matters a great deal. First off, many gyms are closed and many athletic leagues and teams have stopped operating. This is especially problematic as we well know that Covid-19 and other challenges in society (divisive politics, racism, economic challenges) have made stress levels soar.

While this has been found to be true for all age groups, Gen Z (current teens and young adults) are especially impacted according to the Stress in America studies published by the American Psychological Association.

So, you have a perfect storm of high stress, and many people unable to do their preferred exercise due to Covid-19 restrictions.

Therefore, we need to pivot to find ways to adapt to our new reality and use exercise, more than ever before, to help keep ourselves sane during these insane times.

Most people can engage in outdoor walking assuming they can access a safe place to do so. Even with the winter weather coming, one can still take walks if dressed for it.

College students are often used to team sports that might now be cancelled. I try to get my college students to pivot to activities such as walking, running, biking, and so forth that they can do outdoors following Covid-19 protocols.

In fact, in my health psychology class, I ask students to develop a healthy self change project and many students select exercise.

To encourage them, I also suggest that they do the exercise with others (again following Covid-19 guidelines).

Personally, I run about 30 minutes daily and have done so since 1976. I’ve now added more walking to the mix during the pandemic and typically take two walks each day each of 30 to 40 minutes in duration.

It has been so helpful in terms of getting a break from working on the computer all day, helping mood, and even losing a little weight to boot.

University Sport

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Fitness Will Fuel Your Mind While You’re Studying

Mark Beal, Professor of Public Relations at the Rutgers University School of Communication and Information

Most college campuses are filled with scenic running and cycling trails and fitness facilities, so don’t let them go to waste.

While you may be focused on exercising your mind in the classroom, one of the best ways to keep those creative and strategic brain cells fully engaged is to run, swim, lift, or join a fitness class or even better yet, some sort of club or intramural sport.

All of our minds need exercise. It’s why we had recess as kids to force us to get out of the classroom.

You now are on a campus where you have fitness, exercise and sports opportunities right outside your door.

In those first few weeks on campus, familiarize yourself with the fitness facilities and encourage your roommates to join you and start a fitness routine.

I promise you that a fitness break will help your mind write that paper you have been challenged to finish or complete that group project you’ve been putting on hold.

Fitness will fuel your mind while you are studying at the university level.

Students Who Exercise Tend To Maintain A Routine In Their Daily Activities

Ewing Moussa, Director of Campus Recreation at Clarion University of Pennsylvania

College and University students are more stressed than they’ve ever been.

The pressures of expectations on multiple levels – academically, financially, and socially are evident in the growing amounts of students suffering from depression and anxiety.

We expect so much from college students all while telling them that these are supposed to be the “best years of their lives”.

Students need safe and healthy outlets to briefly escape all of the pressure and expectations.

While colleges and universities spend a lot of money in activities on programming and athletics as a way to cultivate school spirit and keep students busy, all of those things can sometimes be lost in the mix and generate more angst and trepidation for students who may already feel inundated and overstimulated with obligations.

That outlet and escape from all of those things is a much more simple solution that is tried and true, physical activity and exercise.

Physical activity and exercise gives students an outlet that is unparalleled. Students are able to maintain good physical and mental health by going for a walk, running, jogging, lifting weights, participating in intramural and club sports, biking, hiking and a plethora of other activities.

These activities not only help students stay in good physical and mental form, they also help give students a sense of structure and discipline.

Students who exercise tend to maintain a routine in their daily activities. They use the time spent exercising as a break in their day and as a means to gather their thoughts.

Students who participate in club sports or intramural activities can socialize and make friends to have during their college years and beyond.

During these unprecedented times in which we’re asking our students to socially distance and refrain from being in close quarters, there is no better solution than getting some physical exercise.

As a Director of Campus Recreation at Clarion University, I’ve gotten to know a majority of the students who use our facility, I’m now at the point where I know exactly what time some of them come in everyday, I know their class schedules, I know when they have exams or have problems with roommates, I know when they’re not eating and when they’re drinking too much.

I know all of these things because our students are comfortable in this building. They talk to me about a new workout they’re trying or problems that they’re having. This facility is their escape from everything else.

Because I’ve gotten to know the students in this facility so well, I can have conversations with them about absolutely anything from everyday banter to more serious conversations.

We all need a break and an escape from the things that keep us occupied – and physical activities are a safe, cost-efficient and highly effective way to stay mentally, physically, and emotionally healthy.

Running Race

(Photo: Adobe Stock)

Sport Can Help Students To Create A Family Away From Home

Andrew Busch, Assistant Professor of Health and Human Kinetics at Ohio Wesleyan University

Almost every sports fan can appreciate how special it is to watch a championship team working together and collectively as a single unit toward a common goal.

Such teams are rare, however, and since there is a limit to the number of “winning” teams, why do athletes participate in sports in the first place?

The four main reasons children begin playing sports at a young age are to have fun, be part of a team, make new friends, and get exercise (Martin, Carron, Eys, & Loughead, 2011).

According to the National Alliance for Youth Sports, roughly 70 per cent of participants will drop out of youth sports by age 13. The most cited reason is the sport is just not fun anymore. This could be because of many factors, including poor coaching, parental/social pressure, or forcing kids to specialize before they are ready to devote all of their time and energy in a single sport.

According to the NCAA, only about six per cent of high school athletes actually make it to any collegiate level of competition (480,000 collegiate compared to ~8,000,000 high school), and among collegiate athletes, less than one percent have a career in major professional sports.

So why do athletes compete at the collegiate level? Is it just to prove to themselves they are good enough to get a scholarship?

Clearly, such athletes possess greater skill in their respective sports, but the motivations for continuing their athletic career into college can vary greatly, and depend on the sport.

For many if not most, athletics is a huge part of their personal identity. Our society places an immense value on athletic talent, which serves to affirm an athlete’s identity as they grow up.

Not many American households value talents such as a child describing the Pythagorean theorem as much as they do that same kid throwing a football 40 yards.

Much more attention and adulation are given toward athletic endeavors, further building self-esteem and identity within that sport. This is not all bad, however, as sports can serve as great motivators to remain in school, get good grades, and continue studying for eligibility.

However questions such as: How did you play today? and How is your season going?, are asked all too often from family members and friends of young aspiring athletes, and left unchecked, could potentially place an unhealthy emphasis on athletic talents above other academic pursuits.

Many athletes will discontinue their sport participation once they are in college, as they may find other interests, realize the demands are too great in addition to their studies, or, just like in youth sports, lose the ‘fun’ factor.

The psychosocial aspects of playing sports at the collegiate level cannot be understated, however.

Students are away from home and living on their own, and sports create a family away from home as they are a part of something larger than themselves.

Many athletes also take on certain leadership roles and duties on a collegiate team that affords them to lead by example; participate in organizing practice/game activities; become vocal in front of the team; motivate and encourage teammates; facilitate relationships among teammates, coaches, and referees; and provide support, mentorship, and feedback.

All of these skills will benefit such athletes in almost any professional field once their athletic careers end.

Division III athletes (or otherwise non-scholarship athletes) continue playing sports primarily for the purest intention; the love of competition and striving for excellence in oneself and their team.

They are not compensated (in the form of tuition, books, etc.), and the psychosocial aspects of an athlete occupying a formal or informal role within a team, which influences team members to achieve a common goal, cannot be overlooked as a driving force to participate in collegiate sports.

Division I athletes (and other scholarship athletes) can also play for the aforementioned reasons, but can also have financial motivations when receiving compensation for their athletic talents in the form of tuition assistance, room and board, or books.

Many athletes may not be fortunate enough to attend college without such financial scholarships.

University Student Sport Career

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Sport And Exercise Improves Self-Esteem In Young People

Brandon Podgorski, Assistant Professor of Sport Management at Trine University and Director of the Trine Center for Sports Studies

Three out of four college students participate in campus recreation including activities such as cardiovascular exercise, strength training, stretching, group exercise, outdoor recreation activities, intramurals, and club sports.

The physical benefits of sport and exercise are well noted and they are universal for all age groups from youth to the elderly. These benefits include weight management, reducing the risk for certain diseases, longevity of life, and the ability to perform the daily demands of life.

The benefits of sport and exercise for college students are not limited to just the physical however, students who participate in sport and exercise also see improvements in their mental health and their academics.

Playing sport reduces psychological distress by 34 percent for those who play one to three times per week and 47 percent for those who play four or more times per week.

Sport and exercise improves self-esteem and cognitive function in young people and can also protect against mental health problems.

Accordingly, students who participate in sport and exercise on their campuses also have better academic success and are retained at a higher rate than non-participants.

A study by Bowling Green State University on their 2013-2014 freshmen class showed that students who participated in group exercise had a GPA of 3.25 compared with 2.77 for non-participants, 3.26/2.79 participants/non-participants for club sports, and a 2.97/2.77 for participants/non-participants for intramural sports.

Also, group exercise impacted the reason to return for their sophomore year for 79 percent or students and intramurals for a whopping 90 percent of students.

Colleges and universities investing in campus recreation is not only good for the physical, mental, and academic health of their students, but also for the bottom-line of the institution. It costs much less to retain a student than to recruit and replace one.

Regular Physical Activity Can Lower The Odds Of Experiencing Clinical Depression

Jaclyn Maher, Professor of Kinesiology and Co-director of the Physical Activity and Lifetime Wellness Lab at the University of North Carolina Greensboro

We know young adults experience immense change as they go through identity exploration and various episodes of trial and error related to things like relationships, hobbies, potential career paths during college.

For many college students, this time of immense change can weigh heavily on their mental health. We know that college students report depression, anxiety, and stress as three of the biggest factors that impact their academic performance in college.

Over the years, evidence has accumulated suggesting that regular engagement in physical activity can lower odds of experiencing clinical depression and sub-clinical depressed moods, can significantly lessen anxiety in those with or without anxiety disorders, and improves sleep outcomes and overall quality of life.

Furthermore, there is also evidence that a single bout of exercise can help to improve one’s mood, lower anxiety, and improve sleep quality.

All of which points to physical activity as a tool that can help college students cope with the challenges and stressor they face as part of being a college student.

Today, in the United States we reached a record high number of coronavirus cases in a single day. As a result of the coronavirus pandemic, and many colleges switching to largely hybrid or online models of education, college students have had to drastically change their daily lives and how they approach their college education.

The stress of these drastic changes coupled with loss of access to many resources on college campuses is increasing the risk of mental health issues in college students and we need tools to combat that.

Our own work recently published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise studying college students’ physical activity and mood during the coronavirus pandemic suggests that despite high levels of stress in this population, engaging in regular physical activity is associated with improved mood states.

In other words, people tend to feel happier and more pleasant when they are regularly physically active despite all that is going on in the world around them.

As the coronavirus pandemic rages on, college students need tools to cope with the uncertainty that sounds their daily lives and the evidence consistently suggests that physical activity is one tool that can be particularly effective to enhance mental health.

Man Running

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Sport Can Help To Build Self-Confidence And Leadership Skills

Coach Shawn Harris, Dean of Athletics at Westcliff University

Having a team and building camaraderie with like-minded individuals helps with a feeling of belonging and purpose.

For example, having team-mates on campus, an immediate group that one belongs to, creates a positive dynamic for the student body as a whole and creates a culture that contributes positively to the identity of each student.

Exercise that is built in to the daily routine of student-athletes provides an outlet for stress and mental clarity and also provides structure for their day which can help lead to a more balanced wellbeing. Being active out on the field helps translate to a positive and healthy environment in the classroom.

Sports and exercise help our student-athletes in their mental health, limiting the impact of stress and depression.

Additionally, learning how to manage time between their sport and their studies provides a solid foundation for work/life balance and teaches the importance of discipline in their everyday schedules.

Participating in a sport will challenge and also teach the importance of a balanced and healthy diet, hopefully leading to taking care of their bodies for their lifetime.

For example, the Westcliff Women’s Volleyball team completes a food journal at the start of each season which is reviewed by the Sports Medicine Staff. Access to nutritional information as they are beginning their independent lives sets them up for success and healthy choices even beyond their years as a student-athlete.

Being a part of a team and playing a sport helps to build self-confidence and leadership skills, which can translate to academic, work, and personal success.

Exercise and physical activity can lead to improved energy levels and mental stimulation, which not only help in the classroom, but also in everyday life.

Sports teaches students a variety of important life skills, such as facing competition when finding or keeping jobs. Participating in sports gives an opportunity to understand the healthy aspect of competition in a teachable environment.

Sports also emphasize the importance of adaptability and teaches skills needed to move past new struggles or challenges.

Sports can also help contribute to the development of social skills in students, teaching cooperation, how to listen to others, how to connect with peers, solve conflict, communicate effectively and provide a social circle outside of their norm.

A Student Athlete’s Perspective

Jada Ware, Women’s Soccer Player at Westcliff University

My coaches have helped me tremendously in dealing with many anxiety attacks and mental breakdowns, even before moving to Irvine and attending Westcliff.

They help me even more now that I’m local, live in Irvine, and officially a Warrior.

I’ve learned that talking to them and not holding back on filling them in on how I’m feeling helps with finding solutions and getting the advice I need. Communication is key!

Personally, I feel so comfortable with going to any single one of my coaches and getting the advice I need to hear to make a change.

Over the course of the Covid-19 pandemic and virtual learning, athletics went virtual also.

Not only were student-athletes provided with opportunities to join in on live Zoom workouts led by Cedrick Middleton, our Asst AD: Sport Science, they also had access to virtual movement screening provided by the sports medicine department to take advantage of time off to heal previous injuries and reduce their risk for future injuries.

Coaches and athletes stayed connected virtually through the pandemic to discuss goals and plans for the future, this kept athletes motivated throughout the summer to stay safe and healthy in hopes of returning to the field of play.

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