THE BLOG
05/10/2010 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Hitting the Gym vs. Hitting the Books: How Your Next Workout Will Improve Your Grades

There's this pervasive false dilemma that passes for common sense among college students: Should I workout and improve my health, or should I study to improve my grades? If you're in college and you're asking that question, you probably already know which side you're going to take. After all, you aren't shelling out 20+ grand a year for a gym membership. But to assume that trade off -- spend the time on your health, or spend it on your studies -- is to make a false assumption. You can have it all. Here's how:

1. Study while you workout

Let me start by saying what I don't mean by this. Please, don't study while you're running or lifting a dumbbell. That's stupid. Having said that, yes, you can study while working out in other ways. In my experience, that's the best time to study. When you're on the elliptical, you're not going to take a Facebook break. You'll probably be too out of breath to talk. If you workout 5 days a week, you not only stay in shape (or get in shape), you gain 5 extra hours of study time a week. Below are some of things I've done or seen other people do.

  • Read through your lecture notes while on the elliptical machine or while doing light cardio (like walking around a track). Because of the way these machines are designed, it's hard to study notes because they fall off the machine.
  • It's also possible to study while lifting weights, provided you study between the actual weightlifting. While you're breaking for 45-60 seconds between reps or sets, rifle through some flashcards, then put them in your pocket and hit the next rep.
  • I'm not a huge fan of stationary bikes, but if you like them, read a textbook on them. Unlike the elliptical, you have almost total control over your hands, which you can use to leisurely flip pages and highlight passages.
  • If you're doing something that requires use of your whole body for balance (like running on a treadmill or jumping rope), record your lecture notes to an mp3 file and listen to them on your iPod. You could also record lectures if you sit close enough to the professor. It's also my understanding that some schools podcast classes. Take advantage of this and use your ears to study while working out.

2. Your workout will help build your will-power muscle

Studies have shown that will power is like a muscle. The more you exercise it, the stronger it becomes. For example, you probably know from experience that it's impossible to do homework or study after a midterm. Instead, you want to unwind and do something fun. Though it sounds a little silly, this happens because your will is depleted by the concentration you forced out during the test. Like a muscle that has just taken too much, it can't do much more. Because exercising is a strenuous activity, the endurance fostered by intense cardio is directly related to the discipline needed to complete the task. If you exercise daily, you're also working out your will: the will to go to the gym, the will to complete the workout, the will to go back the next day.

I notice that my concentration (especially when it comes to finishing a reading for class that takes 2 hours) dramatically improves after consistently working out. Instead of checking facebook, calling a friend, doodling, or daydreaming, I actually sit there and read for 2 whole hours. That will power comes in great use when a couple midterms are approaching simulataneously and you need to pull one marathon study session after another. It also comes in handy when you want to avoid sleeping through lecture.

3. Exercise makes you happier.

When you partake in a physically-demanding endurance exercise (running/swimming-yes, weightlifting-no), a large amount of endorphins are released by your pituitary gland. Endorphins, which fit sort of like keys into locks (of nerve cells) to block sensations of pain, produce feelings of euphoria. In other words, when you're happy, there's a good chance that endorphins are at work. This would explain the "runner's high," or a general feeling of happiness that follows a run. This runs counter to most people's thoughts of working out as an activity full of pain.

In reality, sustained exercise can make you happier. The argument that happier students do better in school is not as strong as its converse, so I'll go with that: Stressed students do worse in school, you would agree. When you exercise, you increase happiness and decrease stress. If less stressed students do better in school, then it follows that students who work out regularly fare better in class. And even if it didn't, who doesn't want to be happy?

4. Exercise is good for your brain.

I like to save best for last. Working out will actually make you smarter. Researchers have found that not only does an exercise regimen have the ability to help the brain grow new nerve cells (something once thought impossible), it can also reinforce existing connections by helping them build more connections, allowing the brain to work faster and more effectively. Imagine taking midterms with a better brain. Enough said.

Given that there is no dilemma to choose from between exercise and studying, and given that combining them can gave you a solid advantage in your classes, there isn't really a good reason not to do something a couple times a week to get your heart rate up and sweat glands sprinkling. If you aren't already lacing up your gym shoes and grabbing your lecture notes, you should.

A question for readers: Do you combine exercise with another task to save time?