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Exercise in College

Lydia Jessup's picture

Lydia Jessup
1 October 2009                                                                                        
Benefits of Athletics in College
            When I came to Bryn Mawr, I made the choice to continue running cross-country. I did not make this choice because of potential health benefits, but because running had become an important part of my life and identity in high school. I have always believed that running has benefited my health, but I have never studied why or how much. Most college students do not participate on their school sports team. How, I wondered, are these athletes different than their peers? Sure, they can most likely run farther and faster, but how exactly does exercise benefit these students during their time at college?
            A study was done at a liberal arts college that competes in Division I athletics to research the effects being on a sports team had on depression rates, self-esteem, psychological distress, and social connectedness. The study prefaced it’s finding with the statement that, “on US college campuses, collegiate athletes are considered a high-risk subculture for a variety of health behaviors… [that are] variables [that] correlate directly with depression” (Armstrong). However, the study found that athletes on a team self reported as being more socially connected, having lower rates of depression, and having higher self-esteem. The study also found that the athletes had higher GPAs. In general, “people who are physically active are 3 times less likely to suffer from depression….and that depressive symptoms decrease with increasing levels of physical activity”(Armstrong). The main difference of being on a sports team is the feeling of “social connectedness,” which can also increase self-esteem and prevent depression.
            I have found this to be true with my past experiences on sports teams and also here at Bryn Mawr. At the beginning of the academic year, I immediately had a group to support me and that I could identify with. I especially felt the “social connectedness” of the cross-country team at the Bi-Co Supafun dance that took place in the first few days of school. For other new freshmen, the dance was awkward and stressful, but I had a wonderful time dancing with the whole cross-country team and I didn’t feel the least bit self-conscious. As with many sports teams, the cross-country team eats dinner together, which increases the team’s familial feeling. If one of the team members showed signs of depression, an eating disorder, or low self-esteem, another runner would be there to help and support her.    
            I often wonder if I will continue running after college. Will I run just to stay in shape and because I enjoy it, or will I run in order to train for events and races? Although I enjoy cross-country and I am aware of the physical and mental benefits, it is often exhausting, stressful, and is a large time commitment. There have been times when I wonder if it is worth everything I put into it. Will my training now and the exercise habits I am building benefit me later in life?
A study done in 1981 and 1982 at Harvard Medical School set out to answer this question. The participants were female college alumnae from various colleges and universities (including Bryn Mawr), both former athletes and non-athletes. The mean age of the athletes who participated in the study was approximately 52 years of age and the mean age of the non-athletes was approximately 54 years of age. The study found that after college, the athletes “spent more time engaged in physical activities, and more reported they exercise regularly” (Wyshak). The former athletes reported overall better health. The study found that the “percent of physician-diagnosed depression (lifetime) [was] significantly lower in the former athletes, 13.56% versus 21.22% among non-athletes” (Whyshak). This rate of depression for former athletes is a more than a third less than the rate for non-athletes. In addition, the former athletes self reported as being overall happier, calmer, and having fewer symptoms of anxiety or depression. Although this information was self-reported, it does not make it any less legitimate, because even if it not “official”, that group still has the self-image as of being more mentally stable and healthy. 
   Another study was done with the same women that focused on cancer rates within the two groups. The study found that the former athletes had lower levels of class I Cancers, which includes cancers of the digestive system, thyroid, bladder, lung, and others such as lymphoma, leukemia, myeloma, and Hodgkin’s disease. However, the rates of class II Cancers, which includes skin cancers and melanomas, were not different. I was surprised that there were significantly lower rates of cancer in former athletes. The study suggests that “a possible explanation…may be that intense exercise stimulates natural immunity” and that, “lower estrogen levels and a greater extent of estrogen metabolism to catechol estrogens among the former athletes might be an explanation of their significantly lower risk of breast cancer and cancers of the reproductive system” (Frisch). The study also suggests that a possible factor in the lower rates of digestive cancers was the diet of the former athletes.    
A study conducted at the Stanford University of Medicine found that it is beneficial to continue exercise, more specifically running, throughout ones life. The participants in the study were 50 years and older. The group of runners was taken from a nation wide running club and the control group was picked to have similar demographic characteristics. The study was done over 21 years and found that, “vigorous exercise (running) at middle and olderages is associated with reduced disability in later life anda notable survival advantage” (Chakravarty). What this study meant by saying that runners and exercisers have a survival advantage is those groups are more likely to live longer and healthier lives. They found that the runners had lower rates of functional disability in areas everyday life, lower rates of cardiovascular-related deaths, and lower rates of deaths from neurologic disorders. The study stated that reasons for this, “may include increasedcardiovascular fitness and improved aerobic capacity and organreserve, increases in skeletal mass and metabolic adaptationsof muscle with decreased frailty…improved response to vaccinations, and improved higher-order cognitive functions” (Chakravarty).
            By making the decision to run for the cross-country team at Bryn Mawr, I unknowingly made a health choice that will benefit me through my years here and if continued, will positively impact my health for the rest of my life. Of course, much of this information is dependent on the individual, but I have found in my own experience that being on a team and competing has increased my self-confidence and social-connectedness. I have found that when I am running and exercising, I am happier than when I am not. I do not have experience with health later in life, but the adults that I know who are active are happier and healthier than the ones that are not. Runners, and more generally people who take the initiative to exercise, may also be more conscious and proactive in other aspect of their health and life. I am not surprised that these are the people who have a “survival advantage” over the rest of the population.