As exams near, we know there are many approaches to studying and preparation, all of which require healthy cognitive functioning. Undoubtedly, our students are very motivated to make the best of their revision time: study schedules are drafted, notes re-written, and practice tests completed. However, one area that is often neglected or outright ignored is that of getting regular exercise. Despite the staggering body of research that speaks to the benefits that exercise has on cognitive functioning, most of the students I talk to stop exercising when academic demands increase. Or for many, have never started a healthy routine in the first place.
The relationship is rather clear: regular exercise improves cognitive function, which in turn, helps studying and test performance. In particular, it improves:
- focus and concentration. An increase in blood flow to the brain leads to improved focus and concentration. For those battling procrastination and distraction, exercise can help.
- stress and anxiety levels. Both are significant barriers to effective studying. A reduction in both leads to a lessening of negative thinking cycles and emotions, both of which get in the way of studying.
- energy levels so that you can stay alert and focused for that final revision session of the day.
- memory, in particular the learning and memory section of the brain called the hippocampus.
- sleep, which we know is absolutely essential for effective studying and information retention.
- executive function (the processes involved in planning, self-control, and decision making).
Research aside, here are some practical tips for using exercise to help you study for exams.
- Schedule in exercise breaks. They are a way to break up long periods of time and can help boost alertness and focus. Aim for 10-15 minute break times for every hour of studying.
- Incorporate physical activity into your studying- walk on a treadmill with your notes, or ride an exercise bike while listening to a lecture. Try body weight exercises in between math problems. Get creative?
Overall, incorporating regular exercise into your daily routine (whether it is exam time or not) is a great way to improve your cognitive function and manage stress and anxiety, which can both help you perform better on exams. Parents, we need your help to assist your child in finding a balance between exercise, rest, and work.
Ji Z, Feng T, Wang H. The Effects of 12-Week Physical Exercise Tapping High-level Cognitive Functions. Adv Cogn Psychol. 2020 Feb 28;16(1):59-66. doi: 10.5709/acp-0284-5. PMID: 32676132; PMCID: PMC7352119.
Kaiser A, Reneman L, Solleveld MM, Coolen BF, Scherder EJA, Knutsson L, Bjørnerud A, van Osch MJP, Wijnen JP, Lucassen PJ and Schrantee A (2022) A Randomized Controlled Trial on the Effects of a 12-Week High- vs. Low-Intensity Exercise Intervention on Hippocampal Structure and Function in Healthy, Young Adults. Front. Psychiatry 12:780095. doi: 10.3389/fpsyt.2021.780095