Going to college changes many things. There are interesting statistics on the habits of college students that suggest exercise is one of them.
Due to a variety of reasons many students adopt different patterns when going to college. Below you can find some of the most popular findings and statistics about the exercise-related habits of college students and where this data comes from.
Keep in mind that the figures below are often estimations from smaller studies and surveys. These things generally come with a lot of biases, suboptimal sample selection, and measurement errors.
In reality, some numbers will likely vary for the overall population of college students, sometimes by a lot.
1. How many college students exercise?
The first question many people have is how many college students actually regularly work out.
One meta-analysis, a study that collects the data from other studies to get a better idea, from 2005 estimated that about 40% – 50% of college students were physically inactive (1). That would mean about 50% – 60% of college students do exercise.
A more recent example from the USA specifically is the Health Assessment from the American College Health Association. The data from this report comes from 95,489 surveys.
67% of these students said they met the guidelines for aerobic activity (150 minutes or more of moderate-intensity physical activity per week or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity physical activity or the equivalent combination) (2).
42.3% said they were meeting the guidelines for active adults (the above aerobic recommendations and 2 or more days a week of moderate or greater intensity activities that involve all major muscle groups aka strength training).
And lastly, 32.7% said they were meeting the guidelines for highly active adults (the recommended strength training and twice the aerobic activity recommendations).
Overall, these survey responses and the ones from other countries below suggest that a good amount of college students exercise enough.
One thing to keep in mind is that survey responses and surveys, in general, are not always accurate representations of the population.
2. Exercise college students in the UK
There are also statistics about the subject from other countries like the UK.
The British Active Students Survey from 2018/2019 with 3661 students suggests that between 15.4% – 20.0% of college students were inactive, between 9.1% – 12.1% were fairly active, and 67.9% – 75.5% were active (3).
3. Exercise college students in Ireland
A survey in Ireland in 2014-2015 with 8122 responses measured that 64.3% of their participants met the minimum physical activity guidelines of 150 minutes moderate to vigorous physical activity per week, 27.5% were moderately active, and 8.1% were inactive (4).
Additionally, 50.1% of females and 31.9% of males said they did not do any muscle-strengthening activities in the past week.
4. Exercise college students in Saudi Arabia
The next survey asked 417 college students from Saudi Arabia a variety of questions about their physical activity levels. They got the following statistics when asking whether the students practiced sports regularly (5):
- Not applicable: 29.3%
- Once a week: 24.5%
- Twice a week: 10.8%
- Thrice a week: 19.2%
- Daily: 16.3%
These responses do not give the most accurate idea of the exercise levels of these college students but it is better than nothing. All in all, you could say that 70.7% of these college students from Saudi Arabia exercised.
5. Exercise college students in Malaysia
One small survey with 100 college students in Malaysia suggests that 40% of their participants had high physical activity levels, 38% had moderate physical activity levels, and 22% had low physical activity levels (6).
6. How often and how long do college students exercise?
From the statistics above, you have a better idea of how many college students exercise. In some cases you already got an idea of the answer to the next question, how often do they exercise?
In one study, 126 Portuguese students wore an activity tracker for 7 days. This study did not mention anything about strength training.
The women in the study had an average of 51.33 minutes of moderate activity and 1.65 minutes of vigorous activity per day during weekdays (7).
The men in the study had an average of 64.99 minutes of moderate activity and 5.67 minutes of vigorous activity per day during the weekdays. On the weekend days, the college students exercised significantly less.
In a survey from 2018 with 124 college students, 48% said they exercised 4 or more hours a week, 12% said 3 or more hours, 19% said 2 or more hours, 7% said 1 hour, and 13% said less than 1 hour a week (8).
7. What is the preferred form of exercise?
The survey with 417 college students from Saudi Arabia also asked their participants what forms of exercise they did. They measured the following responses (5):
- Walking: 30.3%
- Not applicable: 19.9%
- Cardio and fitness: 14.4%
- Lifting: 8.3%
- Swimming and diving: 8.1%
- Football and others: 6.6%
- Jumping: 5.9%
- Other: 4.5%
- Boxing: 1.3%
- Dancing: 0.7%
Some of the most popular choices for the “other” category were karate, walking, and basketball.
The British Active Students Survey from 2018/2019 with 3661 students divided the types of activities into 4 main categories.
21.5% of the students did just sports, 14.6% just went to the gym, 18% did both, and 45.9% did neither which includes working out on their own (3).
Among the sports, some of the most popular options were football (15.6%), rugby (5.0%), netball (3.6%), badminton (3.5%), and basketball (3.4%).
In short, there is definitely a cultural aspect when it comes to what types of exercise college students prefer in their workout plans. However, in most places, things like walking, running, and lifting weights get a lot of attention.
8. What types of college students exercise the most?
Next, there are some statistics that help you get a better idea of what type of college students exercise the most.
In the study where 126 Portuguese college students wore an activity tracker for 7 days, men did on average 26.6% more moderate activity and 243.6% more vigorous activity than the female students (7).
In one survey with 333 university students, males reported doing on average 39.3% more exercise (measured in total MET) than females (10). The biggest difference was in the amount of vigorous exercise.
In the small survey with 100 college students in Malaysia, a higher percentage of males showed high physical activity levels (56%) vs females (24%) (6).
They also calculated a few more detailed numbers like what age range had a higher % of high activity levels (22-25 years).
However, for something detailed like that you should likely not make any conclusions yet with such a small sample size (number of people investigated).
With most of these statistics, you also have to keep in mind that they are from surveys. The actual exercise levels may be different.
9. GPA scores and exercise
GPA is a way of measuring how well you are doing overall with your grades. In simple words, this next section is about the (possible) relation between the academic of college students and whether they exercise.
One study concluded from a survey with 298 respondents that students who work out three or more times a week, on average, will achieve a higher GPA and perform better academically, than students who do not work out regularly (9).
In the same survey, the average GPA for the students who exercised 3+ times a week was 3.61. The overall GPA (including exercisers) average was 3.43.
A different study surveyed 253 college students in 2010 and checked the correlation between a variety of things including GPA and physical activity.
They found that both aerobic exercise frequency and aerobic exercise duration were relatively strongly correlated with GPA score. There was also a correlation with weightlifting frequency and duration but to a lesser extent (11).
As any good college student knows, correlation is not necessarily causation. However, one of the proven benefits of exercise is that it improves cognitive performance. It is nice that the correlation studies seem to agree with this.
10. Why do college students not exercise
While the number of college students who exercise is decent, there are still a good amount of other individuals. Why do these other college students not exercise?
The British Active Students Survey from 2018/2019 with 3661 students asked the students what the (perceived) barriers to physical activity were for them. They observed some of the following responses (3):
- Too busy with studies (27.9%)
- Body confidence (10.5%)
- Too expensive (9.6%)
- There are no barriers (9.5%)
- Too busy socialising (8.9%)
- Physical pains (8.2%)
- Menstrual cycle (6.6%)
- Don’t enjoy being active (5.4%)
- Lack of facilities (4.2%)
- Sports culture feels unwelcoming (2.9%)
- Lack of support (1.6%)
- Don’t see the benefis (1.6%)
- Too busy with work/commitments (1.5%)
- Medical condition (0.9%)
- Motivation (0.8%)
The survey with 417 college students from Saudi Arabia also asked their participants this question.
39% said NA, 18.5% time limitations, 16.1% lack of motivation, 9.8% not interested in sports, 7.2% unsuitable weather, 5.5% feeling too tired for exercise, 2.6% low income, 0.7% laziness, 0.2% there is no women’s gym, and 0.2% other (5).
Another study with 512 college students tried to answer this question with correlation statistics. They found that hours of studying (and social media use) were positively associated with body fat. Study time was negatively associated with cardiovascular endurance.
A higher GPA was associated with a higher BMI and a higher credit load was associated with less vigorous physical activity (12).
In short, time limitations seem to be the most common perceived reason for not exercising among college students.
11. Reasons why college students exercise
On the other hand, plenty of college students do find the motivation to exercise. They have a variety of reasons for this.
Again, the British Active Students Survey from 2018/2019 with 3661 students offers the biggest sample size on this. They observed some of the following responses (3):
- Benefit physical health (16.1%)
- Improve body image (12.8%)
- Stress relief (10.9%)
- Enjoyment (9.7%)
- Distraction (7.9%)
- Mental health (7.7%)
- Spend time with friends (6.8%)
- Boosts confidence (6.7%)
- Learn new skills (5.7%)
- Benefit sleep (4.9%)
- Improve leadership skills (2.8%)
- Benefit academic performance (2.5%)
- Benefit concentration (2.1%)
- Improve employability (2.0%)
- Reduce period pain/cramps (1.4%)
The Saudi Arabia study with 417 college students also investigated this. Participants could give multiple reasons.
48% said they exercised to improve body shape, 41% to lose weight, 39.6% to improve health, 24.5% to spend free time, 23% to build muscle strength, and 13.9% for fun with friends (5).
There are a few other studies too but most of the results are very similar (8, 13). Generally, looking fit and improving physical health are the main reasons college students exercise. Enjoyment and social contact are also often mentioned.
12. Number of college students that are overweight
Exercise is definitely not the only reason for being overweight but there is a relation between the two. Seeing the statistics about the number of college students that are overweight does give you a better idea of their fitness.
The Health Assessment from the American College Health Association also asked their 95,489 about their BMI. BMI is not the ideal way to track weight loss progress but it is decent and easy to do.
Of all the USA college students, 38.8% had a BMI that was considered to be overweight. Part of this number is the 16% of the college students that were considered obese (2).
Something to keep in mind is that this data is from the USA which is currently not the leanest country in the world. The statistics for college students of other countries will likely vary.
13. Influence of exercise on mental health
Working out does not only benefit your physical health. This type of activity can also benefit your mental health.
At the moment, for college students specifically, the studies that investigate this are only correlation studies. While these studies do show a positive correlation between exercising and the mental health of college students, intervention studies would be even better (3, 4, 14, 15, 16,).
That being said, the positive impact of exercise on mental health is relatively obvious in the overall population (17). It is relatively straightforward that this would also be the case for college students.
14. Influence of college on activity levels
For many students the switch to college involves many big changes. In turn, these changes can have an impact on other areas of their lives, including exercise habits.
The freshman 15 is a popular concept that indicates that college students gain weight during their first year. One study does find that the switch to college often involves weight gain, although not 15 pounds as the term suggests (18).
There are of course many factors that influence this. A few statistics indicate that exercising less could be one of the reasons (19).
In one study the percentage of people that were not active went from 24.2% before college to 29.3% during college. Additionally, many people got less active. The percentage of daily exercisers went from 22.1% before college to 16.3% during college (5).
A different study with 145 Canadian undergraduates concluded that about 66.2% of the students reported exercising enough in high school. This went down to 44.1% during the first 8 weeks of college (20).
On a more positive note, 11% of the participants became active at university.
However, one study with 764 college students did find many of the participants had gained weight but they did not observe a difference in exercise or dietary patterns (21). This could be due to things like sleep, stress, alcohol consumption, etc.
So generally these surveys indicate that when individuals transition to college, they tend to exercise less. Not all studies confirm this and there could be many reasons for this. Additionally, some people actually start exercising in college.
15. How much exercise does a college student need?
College students are different in many ways but when it comes to exercise guidelines, the usual quantities generally apply.
At the time of writing the Office of Disease Prevention and Health Promotion recommends the following exercise guidelines to adults (22):
- Moving more and sitting less throughout the day
- At least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 to 150 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity a week. Preferably spread throughout the week.
- You can gain additional health benefits by engaging in physical activity beyond the equivalent of 300 minutes of moderate-intensity physical activity a week.
- Muscle-strengthening activities of moderate or greater intensity and that involve all major muscle groups on 2 or more days a week.
These are of course very rough guidelines. For specific fitness goals, other guidelines may be more effective.
16. Number of steps college students take
A popular way to track activity levels is by measuring the number of daily steps. There are a few studies that offer statistics on the habits of college students when it comes to this.
One study had 441 college students wear a fitness tracker for 7 days. The average number of steps was 11,473.87 per day of the week. They found a difference between the average for weekdays (12,004 steps) and weekend days (9,923 steps) (23).
In a different study, 126 Portuguese college students wore an activity tracker for 7 days. They also saw a significant difference between week and weekend days.
Overall, the average number of steps a day on weekdays was 10,011.97 steps. On the weekend this went down to an average of 6,622.37 steps a day (7).
17. College athlete injuries
Exercising does offer a lot of benefits but something to remember is that it can also lead to injuries.
One study looked at the physical activity-related injuries of 84 college students in southern China. They observed that there were about 2.53 injuries per 1000 physical activity exposure hours and a risk of 0.43 injuries/student/year (24).
A different study with 172 college students from Wuhan also looked at, among other things, statistics about the sports where injuries happened the most.
They measured that 47.09% of the injuries happened during basketball, 28.49% during football, 15.7% during fitness, 3.49% during volleyball, and 5.23% during other sports (x).