One day, Paris Lucas would become an SVSU student majoring in exercise science, with ambitions of attending graduate school. He would be part of a relatively new department of kinesiology engaged in cutting-edge research that was gaining national attention. But at age 14, an odd thing happened to him when a car crash paralyzed his mother from the neck down. Seeing his mom lose control of her body, he decided to take control of his own: with the help of his best friend and a few exercise DVDs, he lost 90 pounds.
But the really unexpected change for Lucas came that fall, when school started. According to him, physical activity became a new way to handle stress.
And grades that hovered around C+ gave way to GPAs of 3.9.
Cue one of the most intriguing questions in exercise science today: What exactly is the link between miles on a treadmill and the letters that wind up on report cards?
That question arose from a study conducted by students in SVSU’s kinesiology department that received attention from National Public Radio, CNN and the New York Times a few years later. This contemporary study is representative of the type conducted by this young department, designed to advance the field’s research, help the community and prepare students for graduate studies.
In this case, though, the most interesting connection – the one between sweat and success – popped up almost by accident.
Anna Gardner (née Piazza), 2009, B.S., used a broad sampling of students to answer a different question: What kinds of barriers kept students from working out? Her method was simple. She gave a short presentation in classes and directed students to an online survey where they entered answers to questions about themselves and what prevented them from exercise.
The next year, Jenny Flynn, 2010, B.S., looked at the data Gardner collected and approached it from a different perspective. She wanted to know: Who is more active? Older students or younger? Males or females? Students with higher or lower GPAs?
Flynn’s analysis uncovered the apparent correlation between exercise and GPAs. Forget stereotypes of puny nerds whose heftiest weights were leather-bound books. The people who reported more vigorous exercise tended to earn better grades.
In fact, according to Josh Ode, assistant dean of the College of Health & Human Services, respondents who reported regular vigorous activity had GPAs approximately 0.5 in grade point higher than classmates who weren’t physically active. On a scale of 4.0, that’s the difference between an A- and a B.
This isn’t causality, Ode insists. Although other research has supported a strong bond between physical activity and academic performance in elementary and middle school settings, the line is grayer at universities: too many other variables. “Bottom line: there is no proof that working out is guaranteed to improve your GPA,” Ode says. “What our students found was an association. That’s where more research needs to happen.”
Flynn’s honors thesis – “Determinants of physical activity in college age students” – won SVSU’s best thesis award. The American College of Sports Medicine wrote a press release on the study’s findings, which led to coverage in the mass media.
Flynn, now a doctoral candidate at the University of Tennessee, says, “The [study’s] real implications were for campus recreation – ultimately, improving the overall experience of a student.”
At one time, Lucas wanted to study computers, but his life-changing family tragedy inspired him to change his focus. Now, he wants to tell his story to others, since really, it was only by chance that he tried to take control for himself. “If it wasn’t for my mom’s accident, I might not have ever decided to change,” he says.
Today, six years later, Lucas’s mom is on her feet again, having pushed herself to be ready to walk for her son’s high school graduation day. Doctors hope that within the year she’ll be ready to leave her cane behind. Yet for Lucas, the path has been an inner one, with fulfilling work ahead.
“It’s not about losing weight,” Lucas says. “It’s about gaining the confidence to become who you want to be.”