Exercise: A Prescription for Being a Better Student

Physical exercise for brain power

Playing basketball. Hiking. Going for a run. Lifting weights. Breaking a sweat. Increasing your heart rate. How does that sound? Enjoyable? Torturous? What if I told exercise was one of the best ways to improve your success as a student?

Everyone knows that exercise is great for your physical health, but there are plenty of other benefits beyond heart health or shedding unwanted pounds. In fact, research about the connection between physical activity and mental health, learning, and the brain has been a hot topic in recent years. Here are some best reasons to start getting physical — and tips on how to get a new exercise routine started.

Stress Relief
Stress can definitely get in the way of academic performance, and exercise is an excellent way to get some emotional release. Working out regularly is also associated with improved sleep, which is incredibly important for stress management. One study that surveyed over 14,000 college students found that the social interaction that occurs during physical exercise is a key element to stress relief. Exercise is also great at building a buffer against stress. Research suggests that it allows the body to practice responding to stressful situations so that it may become more efficient, meaning you don’t feel as stressed when the pressure is high.

Mood Pick-Me-Up
It’s hard for your brain to perform well when you’re feeling down or upset. I like to think of exercise as a “reset button” on my mood — regardless of whether I feel stressed, angry, or any other bad mood, a good workout is a sure way snap me out of it. Research has shown reliably that exercise improves mood within minutes of completion. There is also building evidence that regular exercise for five weeks or more can be a powerful tool against feelings of depression and anxiety, particularly for those who are prone to long-term depression or anxiety.

Learning and Memory
Exercise is related to boosts in memory function, both after short bursts of exertion as well as after longer-term programs. Recently, research has examined the role of a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, which promotes neuron health and growth. Studies have shown that a short burst of intense exercise temporarily increases BDNF and improves memory performance. Five weeks of consistent aerobic exercise is also associated with increased BDNF and improved memory performance. As a bonus, BDNF and exercise may also be linked with lower risk of dementia later in life. There is also research that suggests getting in the habit of being active when you’re younger will improve your memory when you’re older.

Mental Alertness and Concentration
Research with youth across numerous studies has shown that physical activity is key to improving mental alertness and improving their capacity to concentrate. A short burst of vigorous exercise, even as short as 10 minutes, was found to improve their ability to focus and stay alert. These findings have been confirmed in other studies using brain scanners that showed increased activity after a 20-minute walk. It’s thought that increased blood flow to the brain is the reason behind this improved alertness.

Starting a New Exercise Routine
So not only is exercise great for your physical health, but it can help you with your academics too! It can be tough to start a new exercise routine, though, especially as a student — chances are, you’ve got a lot of responsibilities and scheduling conflicts. The CDC recommends a combination of two full-body muscle strengthening exercises plus either two and a half hours of moderate-intensity aerobic activity or 75 minutes of vigorous-intensity aerobic activity per week. If that sounds overwhelming, good news! You can work on getting to that amount in 10-minute increments. Here are some more tips to help you improve your studies and health by getting more physical:

– Do a short burst of exercise before getting to work. You can do sit-ups, pushups, squats, whatever – just get the blood flowing and the heart pumping. In as little as five or ten minutes, research has shown mental benefits of exercise.

– Find an activity you like. In the beginning, this is more important than how much it makes you sweat because you will be more likely to stick with it. Exercise doesn’t have to mean going to the gym. It can mean roughhousing with your kids, taking a swing dance class, or hiking. Remember, you can work toward the CDC’s recommended amount of physical activity 10 minutes at a time.

– Be active with other people. Whether that means finding a running group, kick ball league, or having a workout partner, being active with other people increases your accountability and motivation on the days that you don’t feel like going. It also can be a great way to build relationships and provide a social outlet, which provides that stress-relief benefit.

– Create a routine. Having a regular routine establishes healthy boundaries between your times for exercise, job, academics, home life, and other areas. It will also help protect your exercise routine when other areas of life get hectic.

– Start off slow. Nothing kills a new exercise routine like an injury from pushing yourself too hard. Ease into your new habit, making sure that you warm up before starting to exercise, and stretch afterward.

– Have a personal goal. It can be really helpful to have a goal that excites and motivates you. For example, having a goal of running a 10k race can be very exciting, especially if you have never completed a race before. However, a goal like fitting into clothes that you used to wear can leave you feeling bad about the way your body currently looks, which is unhelpful and can actually leave you feeling less motivated.

– Look for small ways to get more active. For example, you might want to convert to a standing desk or routinely take the stairs instead of the elevator. Some exercises, like squats, sit-ups, push-ups, and other body weight exercises, can be done in your own home — no gym membership needed!

– Remember how good you feel afterwards. Just after you’ve finished a workout, when you feel so good afterward, remember that feeling. That way, when you don’t feel like getting active, you can remember that feeling, and think, that’s why you should do it. That’s why it’s worth it. Because you’re only one workout away from a better mood, better focus, and less stress.

How do you incorporate exercise into your life? Share your best tips in the comments below, and get moving!

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