This article has been updated to include Rachel William’s statement on the report as well as the clarification that the data presented in the press release were not part of a formal study. The headline has also been updated to reflect the latter fact.
Students who use the Recreation and Wellness Center tend to have higher grade point averages and retention rates than “non-users,” says a report recently published by the University of Central Florida.
Using data that came from students swiping their ID cards to access the RWC from three semesters in 2016, it was found that students who used the gym 45 times or more had a higher average GPA than those who do not, by between .05 to .1 points.
“Those who used the RWC more than 45 times in the Fall 2016 semester – the most recent GPA data – had an average GPA of 3.18, compared to the average GPA of non-users at 3.08. Even those who used the RWC just one to five times in semester (sic) had an average GPA higher at 3.13 than non-users,” said a press release by UCF.
The report also made the claim that students who use the RWC are more likely to continue their education at UCF. According to the data, first-time college students who use the gym consistently in the 2015-2016 school year had a retention rate of 92 percent, compared to the 86.6 percent of those who did not use the gym at all. This is, the press release said, has been the trend since at least 2012.
“Average GPAs of frequent RWC users from fall 2012 to fall 2016 improved from 3.16 to 3.18, while average GPAs of non-users in that same time frame went from 3.06 to 3.08,” it said. “Retention rates of first-time students who used the RWC consistently also were higher by at least 3.2 percent, according to the data.”
Knight News only received the GPAs of users and non-users from the spring, summer and fall semesters of 2016 and could not corroborate the differences from 2012 to 2016.
Correlations between using university-provided recreational facilities and academic success and retention have been found in other research. One study published by Leaders in Collegiate Recreation in 2014, called “The Benefits of Campus Recreation,” found that 74 percent of students surveyed said that “campus facilities influenced their decisions to continue attending their chosen college/university.” 68 percent of those who said they participated in recreation facilities, programs and services report an improvement in academic performance.
Pam Watts, LICR’s executive director, applauded IKM’s findings, saying that, compounded by the size of UCF’s student body, it “strengthens the data for and is further evidence of the positive correlation between utilizing campus recreation offerings and higher GPA and retention rates.”
Michigan State University’s study on the subject found similar results. The conclusion that these studies make is simple: access to facilities, particularly the gym, help students connect with their chosen university and improve learning outcomes.
“Students want a sense of belonging,” Sarah Hunt, the RWC’s associate director who helped analyze the IKM data, said. “They get the benefits of exercising, and they also become connected to others by coming with a workout partner or joining a team.”
However, there are problems with the IKM report as well as the body of research at large. For one thing, the report does not control for race, ethnicity, gender or major. Nor does it take into account the habits of users and non-users of the RWC which could also explain the different statistical outcomes.
“I’m sure exercising has some effect in some fashion, but there are so many other things that are factoring into that,” Michael Rovito, an associate professor of health science at UCF, told Knight News. “At home, family problems could be causing their GPA to suffer among non-users. What if these non-users have five jobs they’re working at and don’t have time to go to the gym? There are so many different things, it’s not like a straight line.”
Rovito, who is also the founder and director of the Behavioral Health Research Group at UCF, believes that the data from the Fall 2016 semester—that users average a 3.18 GPA compared to the 3.08 of non-users—while statistically significant, is not “practically significant.” In other words, he does not think students are going to start flocking to the RWC to gain a mere extra tenth of a point.
“If I told you your chances of winning the lottery are 500 times better by buying lottery tickets from me, then you’re probably going to buy lottery tickets from me,” he said. “But if I said that you have a half-percent better chance, I don’t think you’re going to buy.”
The Michigan State study did include these caveats in their analysis of the results, noting that it “did not statistically account for potential confounding variables” like gender and environmental factors. Rovito said that it is possible to make an argument that joining history club could affect academic success since, in his view, “it’s just this collective action of people being around you for social support or just you being driven internally and organized with your life.”
“I don’t think you walking through the doors of a gym is going to give you some magical Wookie powers that are going to make your GPA higher,” he said. “Maybe there’s something there about the team mentality, but how do you actually measure that that’s affecting it?”
The IKM report, said UCF communications coordinator Rachel Williams, was only based on descriptive data and the conclusions “would suggest correlation and not statistical significance.”
“Just to clarify, IKM does not consider this report to be results of a study; no formal study was conducted,” Williams told Knight News in an e-mail. “Any conclusions should only be interpreted as potential correlation.”
Based on the data and the wording of the press release itself, Rovito cautioned against making suggestive statements with no solid data to support it. Using LICR executive director Watts’ use of “positive correlation” as an example, he said the phrase suggests that analytic tests were run but not presented in the data set Knight News obtained. Otherwise, he said, “they are just kind of saying that.”
“We can’t throw these terms around like that and if we do, we better make sure we use them in the right context and that people understand that correlation doesn’t equal causality,” he said.
But the problem also has to do with how researchers view the subject. Often, Rovito said, these studies try to look at the effect of using university recreational facilities and academic success as if they can be tested in a controlled environment.
“Picture I-4. Straight, no traffic, on a weekday rush hour. That’s never going to happen. That’s not real life. But that’s how we’re looking at these topics,” he said.
Still, this is not to say the IKM study and others like it do not have any value. Rovito even admitted that it was “a step in the right direction,” but “to claim straight out that if you go to the gym 45 or more times during a semester you will have a higher GPA, that’s a bridge that’s pretty far.” However, a link between using the RWC and GPA and retention would require more analytical testing.
“With research, you have to be more conservative with your conclusions because what’s true today might not be true tomorrow,” he said.