Is the fitness industry showing us the path education will take in the not-so-distant future?

It’s January, and like other gym-goers, I can’t help but notice the uptick in attendance. The classes are a bit more crowded; it’s harder to find an open treadmill or an empty lane at the pool. It’s New Year’s resolution time, after all, and everyone is getting in shape, signing up for personal training services, and squeezing in shoulder to shoulder in hot yoga classes.

Being in the gym at this time of year has gotten me thinking about the many parallels between fitness and education, as well as the striking differences in how these services are delivered and consumed. I’ve started wondering whether the fitness industry might be showing us the path that education will take in the not-so-distant future.


Exercisers Are Like Lifelong Learners


As both a committed exerciser and a lifelong learner, I can see obvious similarities between these two types of self-improvement/self-maintenance. First, both are habitual practices that are developed over a lifetime. Both physical fitness and mental sharpness are best maintained as part of an overall lifestyle, not in one-off binge sessions or by cramming.  

Second, both exercising and learning require willpower and self-discipline. It’s not always easy to get out the door to go to the gym, just as it’s not always easy to work through a difficult reading assignment or tough problem set.


Coursera Business Vertical Orange Design 10

Third, in order to really do you any good, both learning and exercising have to be challenging enough to require real effort. Anything less doesn’t achieve the desired effect.

Finally (and fortunately), both education and exercise become more enjoyable and require less willpower the more ingrained the habit becomes. So, while it may hurt at first, tying on your shoes and hitting the pavement eventually becomes its own reward. And so does working your way through a difficult course.

In order to really do you any good, both learning and exercising have to be challenging enough to require real effort. Anything less doesn’t achieve the desired effect.

Education Is Not Personal Fitness…Yet


Despite these similarities between lifelong learning and lifelong personal fitness, the differences between these two pursuits remain stark. Much of education is delivered in one-size-fits-all packages, where a one-time achievement (earning a degree) is singularly important and sets a learner down a path that may be difficult and costly to change later on. We know this because while every job announcement lists which degrees an applicant ought to hold, almost none request applicants with an ongoing practice of learning or ask what an applicant has learned in the years since graduation from a degree-granting institution.

Applying the same logic to exercise, no one would hold up the college athlete who has fallen woefully out of shape as the paragon of physical fitness. So why do we consider the one-time achievement of earning a degree so much more important than the learning a person continues to do throughout a career and a life?


From a Hobby to the Basis for Hiring


In a recent column in EdSurge, Amy Ahern mused on her experience using a digital fitness app to augment her exercise habits. Unlike fitness apps, she observed, online classes too often feel isolated and removed from experiences and practices that take place outside the digital classroom. While she often found it hard to find the time to complete a MOOC, she was excited each day to log miles in her fitness tracker. As an instructional designer, Ahern was interested in how online courses could create this kind of “stickiness”. Like Ahern, I believe that education could learn from fitness.

Today nearly everyone knows that developing an exercise habit is a good thing to do, and methods for establishing that habit abound. Gyms offer equipment you can use on your own, group classes in disciplines ranging from Pilates to kickboxing to weight lifting, personal training, and specialized preparation for competitive races. Books, apps, home workout DVDs, and streaming services add more ways a person can develop an exercise practice on terms that work for them.

So, what would it mean for education to look more like fitness?

First, we could start by recognizing the importance of lifelong learning not as a fringe hobby but as a vital pursuit integral to a full and healthy life and a successful career. What I love about MOOCs is that they open up possibilities for individuals to direct their own learning efforts.  

Second, education companies could expand their delivery methods. Just as physical fitness takes a variety of forms, so could education.

Like group classes at the gym, social learning opportunities could make learning more enjoyable and help people stick with it.

Open access courses such as MOOCs are a great start. Education apps could help keep people motivated. In the vein of group classes at the gym, social learning opportunities, such as in-person meetup groups, facilitated projects, online office hours, networking, etc., could make learning more enjoyable and help people stick with it.  

Finally, employers could shift their focus away from brand-name degrees and toward objective performance. Just as it doesn’t matter whether I run on the treadmill at 24-Hour Fitness or on the one in my basement, it shouldn’t matter where or how I learned to conduct a net present value analysis or an A/B test. As the lifelong learning company Degreed proclaims in its mission statement, “There is no single path to expertise…The challenges of the future won’t care how you became an expert, just that you did.” Ideally, employers would learn to take advantage of the expanded educational landscape and the multiplicity of paths to expertise, becoming more able to assess a candidate using objective measures, taking into account the skills he or she has developed outside of any institution.  

Business Foundations from the Wharton School


“Hold on,” one might argue, “aren’t the stakes different between exercise and education? In one case, you’re talking about entirely personal goals (health, wellness) and in the other you’re talking about goals that affect a person’s career trajectory.” Indeed. My fitness level is primarily important to me, while my education level, my smarts, and my skills are important to the people who would hire me. Which is why it is all the more important that education become more like fitness, with employers more able to evaluate candidates’ ongoing learning efforts and continuous skills development, not just the work they did before entering the workforce.

Looking ahead, I am optimistic. I predict that the education industry will come to adopt some of the attitudes, techniques, and modes of delivery that have come to characterize the fitness industry. In the process, we all stand to win.

Are you interested in starting a No-Pay MBA?

Enter your email to get the first chapter of my book "Don't Pay For Your MBA"