Food (and Exercise) for Thought: The Relationship Between Diet, Excercise and Academic Success

Eat. Exercise. Study. These are three activities that should become mainstays to students of higher education. From the moment a college student sets foot on campus, the stress of coping with four years of midterms, problem sets, and essay deadlines begins. Besides the pressures of academia, students will also have to face the prospect of making good life decisions which will impact them further down the road. From simple things such as what to eat for the next meal to whether to procrastinate on an English paper, these everyday decisions heavily impact a student’s academic performance. Indeed, the day-to-day toils in many leading universities may leave students feeling overwhelmed and often discouraged, resulting in even more stress and scarcer corrective actions. Understandably, different students face such challenges in different ways, but two important factors that affect how well a student adjusts to the rigors of college coursework are a well-balanced diet and frequent exercise.

Far from the care of parents, many freshmen and even upperclassmen may begin to develop unhealthy eating habits over a short span of time. Although a recent survey suggested only a moderate weight gain in college freshmen: 5.5 lb. in males and 4.5 lb. in females [1], the conventional stereotype of the “Freshman 15” should not be the only concern among college students, both incoming and returning. In a 2010 study, 59% of students polled in a Massachusetts post-secondary institute reported having developed worse eating habits since entering college [2]. Often, college students may take full advantage of their available meal plan and overeat in order to get the “most bang for their buck.” On the other hand, due to the time constraints of their schedules, some students may frequently neglect entire meals during the day and, as a result, resort to late-night binge eating. Various studies have confirmed that late-night eating not only slows down the metabolism but also adversely affects student moods and attentiveness [3,4]. A 2005 study discovered that, although food consumption late at night accounted for only a fraction of the daily intake, it nevertheless contributed to the greatest amount of weight gain and had numerous adverse effects on the adolescent’s mental health [4]. Furthermore, students under high stress who habitually failed to obtain the recommended daily nutritional intake suffered more frequently from feelings of anxiety and depression [5]. These effects can trigger a very harmful chain reaction. Symptoms of anxiety or depression can cause students to lose interest in school, become less committed to developing a good work ethic, and ultimately fall behind in their classes. Admittedly, such a downward spiral is the worst-case scenario, yet the benefits students receive from a healthy diet are undeniable.

Additionally, the inherent value of frequent exercise to academic success should not be underestimated. Since the early days of elementary school, we have been taught the division between “brain” and “brawn”. While stereotypes may split students into nerds and jocks, the reality of college blurs the contrast between the two groups. In a 2006 publication, neuroscientist Charles Hillman argued against the stereotype of a “dumb jock” and praised the ability of frequent exercise to relax the mind and allow for improved learning capacities [6]. The study showed a strong correlation between regular exercise and solid scores on math and reading exams among grade school students. Moreover, another biological study demonstrated that exercise was not only capable of providing increased blood volumes to the brain but also of delivering elevated levels of neurotransmitters to facilitate faster responses among neurons [7]. Analogous to many current antidepressants, exercise can guide the production and allocation of several key neurotransmitters such as serotonin and norepinephrine. These neurotransmitters play an important role in modulating and defending regions of the brain against the development of depression by regulating genes that serve in neuro-protection [8]. Lastly, exercise can divert college students from potentially risky behaviors such as alcohol consumption [8]. Without such harmful distractions, students can better focus on living a healthy college lifestyle in addition to succeeding in their studies. All things considered, many college students may scoff at the idea of taking advice from their high school gym teacher, but perhaps the real secret to success and happiness in college lies in those small steps on a treadmill.

Fortunately, many supportive actions are underway to help students cope with the stress of higher education by providing them with the means to obtain proper exercise and a good diet. At several premier American post-secondary institutions such as Columbia University and MIT, physical education has become a mandated requirement for all incoming students [9]. In an effort to combat the effects of stress and prevent depression, these colleges attempt to instill in students the value of frequent exercise. Moreover, college intramural sports are gradually gaining a bigger role in involving students in exercise based on their individual interests [9,10]. Intramural sports provide a wider and more enjoyable platform than physical education classes for student participation in physical activities. Additionally, in intramurals, students will not be pressured by the time commitments needed to participate in varsity level sports teams. At the same time, the collaboration of student government bodies and parents has prompted numerous universities across the nation to reform their meal plans for the better [11]. Currently, college meal services are working to make healthy eating options more appealing and available to their students. However, much work still needs to be done to help students to better manage their stress. According to the United States Census, although 6 in 10 graduating high school students went on to attend college the following year, only 29% of that number ultimately obtained a bachelor’s degree or higher [9]. Though financial difficulties and family circumstances may contribute to the low graduation rate, the rigor of post-secondary education must also be considered. Thus, college students across the nation continue to need the support of their families, affiliated college staff, as well as society as a whole to succeed in their post-secondary studies and what may lie ahead. Helping them to attain an active lifestyle and a healthy balanced diet can be the first priority of these support groups.

The factors contributing to success in college are many and confounding. Elements beyond good diet and regular exercise may certainly play equally powerful if not even more influential roles. Yet, learning good eating and exercising habits is within the student’s control. Students who establish these habits during college will not simply improve their academic performance but also establish a solid foundation for their future.


[1] Gropper, Sareen S. , Simmons, Karla P. , Gaines, Alisha, Drawdy, Kelly, Saunders, Desiree, Ulrich, Pamela and Connell, Lenda Jo (2009) ‘The Freshman 15—A Closer Look’, Journal of American College Health 58(3): 223-31.
[2] Freedman, M. R. et al. (2010). Point-of-purchase nutrition information. Journal of the American Dietetic Association 110(8): 1222-6.
[3] Striegel-Moore, R.H. (2008). Exploring the typology of night eating syndrome. International Journal of Eating Disorders 41(5): 411-8.
[4] Watts, Martina. (2005). Diet depression & mental health. Brighton Argus, Retrieved from (Accessed on 18 December 2010).
[5] Kramer, A. F., & Hillman, C. H. (2006). Aging, physical activity, and neurocognitive function. In E. Acevado & P. Ekkekakis (Eds.), Psychobiology of Physical Activity (pp. 45-59). Human Kinetics: Champaign, IL.
[6] David J. Creer, Carola Romberg, Lisa M. Saksida, Henriette van Praag, and Timothy J. Bussey (2010). Running enhances spatial pattern separation in mice. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences 107(5): 2367-72.
[7] Thase, Michael E. (2010). The role of neurobiologic processes in treating depression. The Journal of Clinical Psychiatry 71(10): e28.
[8] Delisle TT, Werch CE, Wong AH, Bian H, Weiler R (2010). Relationship between frequency and intensity of physical activity and health behaviors of adolescents. Journal of School Health 80: 134-40.
[9] Thomas J. Lasley, II, Thomas C. Hunt, C. Daniel Raisch (2010). Encyclopedia of Educational Reform and Dissent. SAGE Publications.
[10] Mathner, Robert P. (2010). The effects of a sportsmanship education program on the behavior of college intramural sports participants. Recreational Sports Journal 34(2): 119-28
[11] Brown, Lora Beth. (2005). “College students can benefit by participating in a prepaid meal plan.” Journal of the American Dietetic Association 105(3): 445–8.
[12] 2000 United States Census Bureau.

Frank is a first-year student at the University of Chicago.