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Physical activity and academic performance: The link between exercise and wellbeing in academic institutions

Diana Munoz

This article will explore the benefits of physical activity in academic institutions for student and faculty wellbeing, as well as academic performance. The article will also highlight the positive effects of exercise on mental health, reducing stress levels, and improving cognitive function. Additionally, the article will offer practical recommendations for incorporating physical activity into busy academic schedules to facilitate a healthy lifestyle.

The benefits of exercise and movement in academic settings are tenfold, including increased academic performance, physical health and improved mental health. Studies have found that single bouts of physical activity result in improved attention (Hillman et al., 2003, 2009; Pontifex et al., 2012), better working memory (Pontifex et al., 2009), and increased academic learning time and reduced off-task behaviours.

So, what exactly are the key benefits of exercise to student and faculty wellbeing?

Stress and Anxiety Management

Covid-19 brought a period of unprecedented change, particularly within the education sector. Academic institutions were forced to have to navigate a new way of learning for their students to successfully adapt and learn from home. With this surfaced feelings of stress and anxiety. For some students and faculty, this may have been a new feeling, while for others these emotions may have been heightened. While thankfully, lockdown now seems to be in the past, and both students and faculty are now back into a regular academic routine, the challenge of managing student and faculty’s anxieties, fears and uncertainties, is still present.

One way to tackle this ongoing challenge is through movement, which has been known to effectively manage stress and anxiety. Physical activity that raises the heart rate is proven to release endorphins, giving the brain a feel-good pump and helping to reduce the symptoms of stress.  Implementing and offering a physical education strategy within your academic institution, allows students a healthy outlet to manage any stress or anxiety they may be feeling about their education and in their personal life.

Improved academic performance

As well as helping to alleviate symptoms of stress and anxiety, research also shows that physical activity can have a significant impact on cognitive skills, such as concentration and attention span. It can also improve behavioural attitudes in academic settings, which aids in improved academic performance. Academic performance is crucial to student’s overall wellbeing, therefore, by introducing physical activities to engage in, both students and faculty can drastically reduce their stress levels.

Building healthy habits

Allowing students to explore and discover what they like to do, such as getting involved in a team sports, yoga or group meditation, can help them to make informed decisions about long term exercise goals, and build healthy habits, not to mention, associations with physical activity.

Exercise can also be a sociable activity, that coupled with the above benefits, can dramatically improve students’ and faculty’s wellbeing. It also gives students the foundations to ensure that exercise is a part of their own wellbeing routine. This in turn promotes a positive mindset about exercise, which will hopefully continue into their life post education, helping them to build lifelong healthy lifestyle habits.

It’s clear that movement has numerous benefits including the ability to help reduce stress and boost energy levels, leading to improved academic performance. As a faculty member, actively encourage the importance of movement to your students and offer advice on how this can be achieved. It’s also equally important as a student to come to classes prepared and allow yourself time between studying to walk between lessons, or time to meditate in the library.

Through this dual approach, both faculty members and students can build healthy lifestyle habits that have a positive and beneficial outcome to their overall wellbeing.

By Diana Munoz, Student Services and Welfare at Oxford Business College

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