Get Fit, Get Smarter? Study Links Physical Fitness to Higher GPA


Does a strong body equal a strong mind? A recent study suggests that the two are positively linked, and physical fitness leads to better mental performance.

It is a well known fact that exercise has many benefits for the physical and cognitive development of a human being. However, there has now been found a direct correlation between a student’s physical fitness and their grade point average (GPA).

Christopher Newport University vs. Penn State women’s soccer match. Credit: cw/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

The University of Nebraska and Pennsylvania State University worked in tandem to develop research surrounding the fitness of female students and the effect this had on their cognitive performance, as reflected in their GPA. Most prominently studied in this research were the iron levels of the subjects, with those exhibiting a certain level of physical fitness also displaying healthy iron levels. Their more sedentary counterparts displayed low levels of iron in their bloodstream.

The survey followed 150 female students from Penn State University, all with the same GPA of 3.68.

“GPA is a very easy measure of success and something everyone can relate to,” said assistant professor of Nutrition and Health Sciences at Nebraska, Karsten Koehler. “That’s something that resonates pretty well. It’s always nice to show an association that has a meaningful effect that translates into something everybody can apply.”

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The results of the study showed that the female students who had higher levels of iron scored higher grades, and those who exercised and exhibited physically fit traits along with high levels of iron scored highest. The students who had low iron levels had a lower GPA by up to .34. This is as much as it would take to change a letter grade and go from a B to an A.

A smear indicating iron-deficiency anemia. Credit: Ed Uthman/Flickr, CC BY 2.0

Iron plays a very important role in human health. From oxygen transport to hemoglobin synthesis, iron is necessary for all living creatures. Those who suffer from low iron levels are called anemic, a condition that often causes fatigue, dizziness, or cold hands and feet. While iron levels can often be lower among athletic young females, this study shows that the combination of physical fitness, along with healthy levels of iron, can play a vital role in cognitive performance.

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Exercise in general is known to boost cognitive ability, promoting memory and mental focus. However, Koehler was clear that starting an exercise regimen does not guarantee a sudden improvement in grades. It is shown that healthy individuals who do exercise tend to have higher grades as a result of their lifestyle, which is developed over years.

“Improving fitness or maintaining a high level of fitness can be important for collegiate success,” Koehler stated. “Ideally, we should also make sure the diet is appropriate to prevent nutrient deficiencies.”

According to the Center For Disease Control and Prevention, only 29 percent of high school students report exercising or engaging in physical activity for 60 minutes a day. Increasing physical fitness at a younger age can lead to improved grades in later years, so it is important to begin and stick to a healthy exercise routine as early as possible.