Students who use college recreational facilities and programs are likely to see benefits beyond just physical fitness.

At the University of Central Florida, Recreation and Wellness Center users are likely to have higher grade-point averages compared to non-users, and are more likely to stay in school, according to university data.

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 had an average GPA higher at 3.13 than non-users, according to the data.

First-year retention rates also were higher among RWC users. Of the 2015-16 first-time-in-college cohort, 92 percent of students who used the RWC more than 45 times in the fall 2015 semester – the most recent retention data – continued their education. Nearly 90 percent of students who used the RWC 11-20 times that semester stayed in school, while 86.6 percent of first-time students who did not use the RWC stayed in school.

“Students want a sense of belonging,” said Sarah Hunt, associate director of facilities at the RWC who spearheaded analyzing the data. “They get the benefits of exercising, and they also become connected to others by coming with a workout partner or joining a team.”

RWC executive director James Wilkening added, “If someone is a healthier person, they’re bound to be more successful. Their attention span is greater, they have a lower absentee rate and much more.”

UCF data back to 2012 shows the trend of higher GPAs and retention rates among RWC users stands true. 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. Retention rates of first-time students who used the RWC consistently also were higher by at least 3.2 percent, according to the data.

“Some argue that recreation and wellness centers at colleges and universities are just luxuries that shouldn’t be something fees are spent on,” Wilkening said. “But we see the more people use the RWC, the more we assist with the overall goals of the university.”

Nationally, the trend still stands true. In “The Benefits of Campus Recreation,” published by NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation in 2014, 68 percent of more than 33,500 students surveyed said campus recreation helped improve their academic performance. Seventy-four percent said campus recreation facilities influenced their decisions to continue at their college or university, while 67 percent said campus recreation programs influenced their decision to continue at their school.

“I’m not at all surprised to find that benefits of campus recreation shine through at a school as large as UCF,” said Pam Watts, executive director of NIRSA: Leaders in Collegiate Recreation. “The data you point to at UCF, shown in such a large student population, strengthens the data for and is further evidence of the positive correlation between utilizing campus recreation offerings and higher GPA and retention rates.”

“We applaud UCF’s efforts to create and integrate recreation and wellbeing best practices to enhance learning and student success,” Watts said.

For Bryan Cazal, a sophomore finance major, the commitment he’s further developed for his wellbeing by going to the RWC five times a week has carried over into a greater commitment to school, he said.

Exercising also has been crucial to relieving stress, said Alyson Heemskerk, a junior studying nursing who goes to the RWC daily.

“Sometimes I feel like my stress levels are through the roof,” she said. “I’m here two-three hours a day. I don’t feel good about myself if I’m not here.”

Even with a full course load during the school year, Heemskerk said she would still make time to go to the RWC.

“I found it was a good break from studying and it got me re-energized,” she said. “I’d come at night or in between classes – whenever I could.”