GPA and the Gym

On July 10, 2014, MSU posted a press release concerning the research of James Pivarnic and Samantha Danbert, which found that MSU freshman and sophomore students who belonged to the university’s recreational sports and fitness center earned higher GPAs than non-participating students. The two-year retention rate, which measures students who persist in their studies, was higher for the athletic participants as well, by 3.5%. Put in another light, that retention rate on a population of 49,000 students suggests that 1,575 more students would progress from their sophomore to their junior year in college because they participate in exercise at the university’s athletic facility (

The findings are consistent with higher-education research conducted over three decades by Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini (2005), who are famous for their work on how students are affected by their college experiences. Their research uncovered an association between academic success and connectedness to the college or university. In other words, the more involved students are in activities at the college or university, the greater is their academic success. The recent MSU study explores physical activity in a campus community, which is provided through the institution’s athletic center.

Two dimensions caught my attention. First is the notion that academic success is enhanced by physical exercise. The study did not explore whether or not there was a mind-body relationship. Rather, it looked at summative (end-results) data. Those who exercised persisted in college and earned higher GPAs than students who did not exercise at the athletic center. I see a possible research project here. As a layperson, I always believed that the mind is part of the body. Like any muscle, oxygen, the blood and all its helpful nutrients will circulate to the mind when the individual exercises. As all of the body’s systems and components improve with exercise, it is logical that the mind grows stronger as well. A fit mind has the stamina to focus on learning. Moreover, the discipline required to complete a workout transfers over to one’s studies. The student’s brain is better prepared for mental exercise; the student’s dedication to a disciplined study routine is trained indirectly through the physical workout regimen. At least, that is how I perceived my body to work when I exercised while attending college.

The second dimension is the role of community. Pascarella and Terenzini’s research demonstrates the power that belonging to a community has in affecting student retention. “Community” can take many forms. It can be a student club or organization, working collaboratively with other students on projects, interacting with and developing relationships with faculty, belonging to a fraternity or sorority, holding a job on campus, and so forth. The source of the community is not as important as the effect. Regardless of the source, student retention tends to improve when belonging to a community. Pivarnic and Danbert’s research shows the positive effects of belonging to a student athletic community in particular.

The community dimension is something I experienced firsthand when I started working out in a CrossFit® gym in 2005. The high-intensity workouts were (and still are) intensively grueling. The fact that I was not alone in pushing myself to my limit kept and is what keeps me going. When I’m working out in an instructor-led class with others, the instructor pushes us; the fact that others persist in the workout also pushes us to keep going. It is almost as if we are in a battle together; however, that battle is within ourselves. When working out, we are so focused on what we are doing that we tend to “zone out” everything around us. However, when we’re done, we feel proud of what we accomplished, and share a bond in knowing we shared the challenge of completing such an intense experience together. I often feel that if I can complete a HIIT workout, I can complete almost anything to which I set my mind. I feel proud of myself and happy for the accomplishments of those who “suffer” with me. I also have a better understanding of my limitations. Knowing those, I have developed confidence that I can overcome my limitations with practice and self-discipline.

My book Transformational Leadership and High-Intensity Interval Training explored this sense of accomplishment within community among a population of CrossFit® athletes who are organizational leaders. I was gratified to see certain hunches validated through my exploratory study. These leaders found mind-body connections between their high-intensity athletic training and their approaches to leadership. Achievement within a community was motivating and inspirational to them. Their love of community spills over to their leadership style. They consider their employees teammates. The leaders who participated in my study are successful in their careers. I can’t help but wonder if there is a parallel between the research of Pivarnic and Danbert among college freshmen and sophomores and organizational leaders. Both groups are athletes who belong to a community, and both are successful in their respective contexts. Perhaps this is a question I will add to the many other suggestions for future research that I proposed in my book.

Copyright © 2014 Carol R. Himelhoch. All rights reserved.

2 thoughts on “GPA and the Gym

  1. I love the direction this research is heading in. While I am not a serious athlete, I am a steady one, and I can feel the connection between physical activity and mental acuity. Well done-look forward to more.


    • Thanks, Cindy! I consider “steady” serious. Finding the level of exercise that is right for the individual is important because it increases the odds of persistence. It’s great to connect with folks who perceive that mind-body connection. I appreciate your encouragement.


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