"The multitude of benefits sport and exercise can bring to a student’s life in Cambridge, as well as in life beyond university, seems endless"UNIVERSITY OF CAMBRIDGE

“Why don’t you pick up a sport?” We’ve all heard that one before, whether from parents, friends, siblings, DoS’, supervisors or tutors. Many may be tired of such banal advice since, ‘sport isn’t your thing’. Yet, for some (hopefully many more having read this article) it might just be a very valuable piece of advice, especially for those studying at Cambridge. The multitude of benefits sport and exercise can bring to a student’s life in Cambridge, as well as in life beyond university, seems endless: stress relief, improved time management skills, social opportunities, physical health, routine, a sense of achievement, endorphin release, improved academic performance (believe it or not), performance under pressure, improved communication and focus, all come with playing sport.

Evidence for this can be readily found on the university website’s sport section, where three separate reports spanning the last seven years and three more ‘case studies’ of now-graduated Blues sportspeople are displayed. The most recent of the reports is the Sport and Academic Performance Report undertaken by the University of Cambridge Sports Service in March 2019, which took data from 4,000 students who had achieved a Blue or Half-Blue between 2005 and 2016. The other two were both undertaken by BUCS (the governing body for university sport in the UK) in 2018 and 2013. The latter focused on the acquisition of transferable skills useful in employment. But, importantly, the former was BUCS’s 2018 Active Student Survey, which surveyed just under 7,000 university students across the UK on their sporting engagement and subsequent wellbeing. The conclusions from these three reports ultimately state the same thing: sport is good for you, whether that’s right now, or for the future. To bring the focus back specifically to Cambridge, Varsity has interviewed three people currently within the University: Dr Dunecan Massey, DoS of Medical Science and Undergraduate Tutor at Caius; Bella Biddle, an English undergraduate at Churchill about to start her third year; and a Maths undergraduate who wished to remain anonymous.

Aside from freshers who may be yet to find out, most of us know that Cambridge can be a stressful place to study. Dr Massey put it very well when he said that “most of that stress comes from within, not from without”, explaining that it is almost never “a situation of DoS’ coming down hard on students with impossible deadlines; it’s students setting their own expectations.” However, generally speaking, “being a student at Cambridge University is a unanimously stressful experience,” as Dr Massey well knows from his own time here as a student. Both the undergraduates expressed similar sentiments: our mathematician described it as, “very intense” and half-joked about working, “70 hours a week”. Despite this, “when handled in the correct way,” Dr Massey says, the Cambridge lifestyle, “can be stimulating and exciting and can lead to extraordinary productivity.”

The 2018 BUCS report suggests that the greatest ‘barrier to activity’ among students across the UK is that they are ‘too busy with studies’, far ahead of financial or other logistical difficulties. This seems particularly accurate at Cambridge. When reacting to this statistic, English student, Bella, did not seem at all surprised: “I’m always slightly terrified when students are gobsmacked that I train two full days sailing a week”, which she does admit is probably the maximum amount of time one might dedicate to sport at Cambridge. Our mathmo said the same, admitting that, “finding time for sport can be difficult in Cambridge” and, realistically, “unless you do it from Freshers’ Week, it’s so hard to pick anything up”. Indeed, it can be very easy to get bogged down in essays, example sheets, lectures and supervisions if you don’t make an effort to find something else to spend time doing. Bella put it incredibly aptly, explaining that, “work expands to fill the time you give it” and, “sports force you to put in a pin in [your] studies and find time to play.”

Ultimately, it will almost always be worth the effort to set up a weekly routine based around sport or some form of exercise. One recurring point is that playing sport regularly allows you to refresh your mind, shifting focus entirely away from academics, allowing you to return with a new perspective. This was something that was continuously mentioned by our interviewees, as well as in the ‘case studies’ found on the University website. The mathematician explained that, when playing a game of football, “you’re getting away from work for a solid two hours. It’s so immersive. You’re just playing sport and not thinking about example sheet number 3.” Bella described how, “a sport like sailing gets you outside, out of Cambridge even, and gives you real space from the bubble feeling that the city can give you.” Dr Massey also hit upon precisely the same point when describing what he might say to a student if suggesting they return home for a weekend: “You need to take two days out of this goldfish bowl. Go home or to see friends elsewhere. Don’t do any work and when you come back you will see the University from a different perspective.” That’s precisely what sport provides, usually to a less severe extent. It is a regular, scheduled break from work that allows you to return with renewed motivation.

"One recurring point is that playing sport regularly allows you to refresh your mind, shifting focus entirely away from academics, allowing you to return with a new perspective."

A second lifestyle benefit, stress relief, plays strongly into this too. When in a sporting environment, for example a rugby pitch, it is permitted, and often expected, to shout, to challenge other people physically and express yourself freely. “You need that time to shout, scream and run around to avoid taking it out on someone else or yourself” said our mathematician. This is particularly useful for students who may find themselves frustrated by their week’s work, for whatever reason, since sport allows you to blow off steam and return with a clear head.

Furthermore, having one or several sporting activities scheduled into your week forces you to improve time management skills, a third benefit to consider. English student and sailor, Bella, seems to have perfected such skills, saying “I definitely spend less time studying than I otherwise would, but I think I approach my studies with more focus for having other things to think about and clear limits on the time I can spend on it.” She went on to explain that anywhere other than Cambridge, “taking two days off work is a fairly usual amount (see the concept of a weekend) and it says really scary things about the work life balance in Cambridge if people feel like they can’t find time for things that matter to them” While time management might well be a typical skill for embellishing a CV, it is incredibly useful at Cambridge, where time is particularly valuable in our lightning-fast, jam-packed, 8-week terms. Sporting commitments allows (or requires) you to practice finding a healthy balance in how you spend your time.

Lifestyle benefit number four should be obvious, but may not have occurred to some. Regardless of how talented or physically fit you are, joining a sports team is an immediate opportunity to meet new people. Our interviewees all agreed that, while they may not all be exceptionally close, they had all made a good number of friends through playing sport. Due to the nature of sailing, Bella described how her, “friends from sport are probably the most invaluable thing.” She ended up, “living with [her] helm (sailing partner) for some time during lockdown.” She adds that because the sailing team competes so often with other universities, she has also made friends with students from other universities. Our mathematician explained that the joy comes from “meeting people in an environment outside of work, where you’re all going for your own enjoyments”. In a place where study and academics dictate a majority of your time, it is crucial to be able to connect with others over other common interests. According to BUCS’s 2018 report, at least double the percentage of inactive students feel ‘left out’, ‘isolated’ or ‘barely known’ compared to those who are actively engaged in sport.

As many will know, exercise is one of the “three pillars of wellbeing” as described by Dr Massey. When discussing student welfare, his key message was that of the “overall trinity of regular, healthy eating, good sleep and good exercise. As long as a student is doing all three, that’s the cornerstone of a really healthy life”. Arguably, it’s a virtuous circle. If sleep and nutrition give you the energy to exercise, exercise equally increases your appetite, as well as wearing you out sufficiently to sleep. Health was perhaps the most obvious benefit to most of us, since from primary school we are told to exercise for our physical health. But it does go further than that. Our mathematician put forward the view that, “generally when people are healthier, they tend to be happier within themselves.” Dr Massey explained the sense of instant gratification or achievement you often feel having played sport or exercised. “You got up. You got to the river. You’ve just done an hour on the river. Physiologically, there’s a dopamine surge that gives a sense of wellbeing,” he said, describing his own student experience of rowing. He contrasted this to the very long-term (or lack of) gratification inherent in a Cambridge Tripos, where “you don’t really get any feedback until you get your grade”.

From this basis of elevated general wellbeing, it is easier to understand how sportspeople, whether representing university or college, might have a healthier approach to work. And this is precisely what the University’s own survey of 2019 suggests. While many might imagine that those with sporting commitments might have less time for studies, and therefore do worse, this is by no means the case. The survey, focussed only on those who represent the university (who are at the upper limit of sporting dedication) and found that “undergraduate students who participated in University-level sport performed just as well academically, if not better, than the undergraduate population as a whole”. The percentage of students who received either a first or a 2:1 in their degree throughout the university as a whole was 75.5%, whereas the figure for 'undergraduate sportspeople’ was much higher, at 91.4%. It is important to remember that these students, like Bella, likely dedicated up to two days to their sporting endeavours and still succeeded academically. Clearly then, it is not a case of either sports or studies. The most successful students make time for both.

"The percentage of students who received either a first or a 2:1 in their degree throughout the university as a whole was 75.5%, whereas the figure for 'undergraduate sportspeople’ was much higher, at 91.4%."

If sport can help in the short- and medium-term, it is also beneficial in the long-term. The 2013 BUCS report on employability concluded that “employers recognise the benefits of sport in developing career-enhancing qualities, with 94% of those questioned identifying a clear link between university sport participation and valuable skills and strengths in potential employees”. The list of qualities found within the 59-page report is lengthy, to say the least: “team working, communication skills, motivation, competitiveness, resilience, leadership, organisation, prioritisation of time, commitment and application” were all mentioned in the report. It went on to give quantifiable evidence of such benefits: “those who took part in sport at university had a personal income (£32,344) greater than those who did not engage in sport (£26,728)”. This information, based on a sample of 5,838 graduates ranging in age and degree subject, is very strong proof of what is to be gained, in the long-run, from sporting engagement.

It would seem that sport covers all bases. It can help you feel better right now; it can help you do better over the next few years; it can help you in your career. Granted not everyone is able or wants to play sport at a high level but, ultimately, it doesn’t matter how good you are. Going for a walk, run or cycle makes a great difference to your working week at university and if you can join a team or society, even better. Particularly going forward into a year of COVID restrictions, where there are far fewer academic reasons to leave the house (lectures, supervisions etc.), sport should provide an outlet for us all. The conclusion of the 2013 BUCS report reflects the angle of this article perfectly: “sport does matter and can contribute in various domains. It is a force for good…and now is the time for all to realise the potential of sport and to act accordingly”. If that can’t convince you to ‘pick up a sport’, I’m not sure what will.