Updated: Feb 9, 2022
Making time for your friends, family and hobbies while maintaining academic responsibilities is an art form in itself. Throw in making time for yourself and it can feel impossible. However, fitting that ‘me time’ into your schedule can be a great way to reset and get the most out of your week. For the next instalment in the theme of How to be a Better Student, I will provide a brief overview of how exercise can help you get the most out of each study session and the neuroscience behind it.
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What is a sustainable student lifestyle? Constantly cramming for the next exam may be feasible the first time, but it is not a sustainable way to continue for an entire degree. Studies have documented that increased physical activity does improve academic performance long-term. This has been researched across age groups. Improved short-term and long-term memory has been shown in higher education students when participating in aerobic activity as compared to a physically inactive control group (1). Interestingly, the introduction of physically active lessons has shown in increase in the academic performance of students ages 5-13, while an increase in physical education itself has not (2). This study suggests the combination of learning and exercise together leads to improved cognitive ability, which is perhaps why active learning stations are gaining popularity. For example, Carleton MacOdrum Library prior to 2020 had started to offer workstations with connected treadmills. Furthermore, the age-related cognitive decline in older adults is slowed by exercise that is longer in duration, structured and with multiple components (3). While each of these studies consider different aspects of cognitive ability and have each cited further research is required to identify the mechanism responsible for their findings, they do all point to a common theme. No matter your age, exercise is beneficial to both your physical health and brain health.
Studies that have attempted to elucidate the underlying mechanism of this relationship often consider Brain-Derived Neurotrophic factor (BDNF). BDNF is a neurotrophin that facilitates plasticity in the brain. Moreover, increased release of this neurotrophin is associated with exercise (3). The role BDNF plays in plasticity, neuron growth and maintenance has been shown to positively effect cognitive function in both humans and animals (4).
To be clear, running a nine-minute mile does not directly translate into a 4.0 GPA! Working towards an exercise goal however, may lend a hand balancing out an academically intimidating schedule. Between both the initial benefits of improved academic performance and the influence over age-related cognitive decline, finding an activity that gets you moving is a great investment, no matter how small. Throughout my undergrad degree I slowly incorporated running into my routine. While I can't say I'm a great runner, I can say I feel great relief when finally putting down my books and turning on my music. Give it a try, you never know what might stick!
Sebastian Ludyga, Markus Gerber, Serge Brand, Uwe Pühse & Flora Colledge (2018) Effects of Aerobic Exercise on Cognitive Performance Among Young Adults in a Higher Education Setting, Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 89:2, 164-172, DOI: 10.1080/02701367.2018.1438575
Donnelly, J. E., Hillman, C. H., Castelli, D., Etnier, J. L., Lee, S., Tomporowski, P., Lambourne, K., & Szabo-Reed, A. N. (2016). Physical Activity, Fitness, Cognitive Function, and Academic Achievement in Children: A Systematic Review. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 48(6), 1197–1222. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000000901
Kirk-Sanchez, N. J., & McGough, E. L. (2014). Physical exercise and cognitive performance in the elderly: current perspectives. Clinical interventions in aging, 9, 51–62. https://doi.org/10.2147/CIA.S39506
Vaynman, S., & Gomez-Pinilla, F. (2005). License to Run: Exercise Impacts Functional Plasticity in the Intact and Injured Central Nervous System by Using Neurotrophins. Neurorehabilitation and Neural Repair, 19(4), 283–295. https://doi.org/10.1177/154596830528075
Blog by Emma