Exercise to Excel: 5 Tips to Improve Your Exam Performance

Our bodies were built for mobility! Not desk-bound modality!

And the University of Newcastle’s very own Professor David Lubans would agree wholeheartedly. Composed and strong of posture, David very much walks the talk. Starting off as a passionate physical education teacher with a knack for Rugby League, he has now established himself as a researcher dedicated to promoting physical fitness. His recent project, Burn 2 Learn, aims to weave short physical High Intensity Interval Trainings (HIIT) routines in high school classrooms.

This project is backed by research that he would like to share with us university students.

He begins by introducing us to the biological war within our bodies that contributes to academic strife. “Your body is releasing cortisol (a stress hormone) in response to non-physically stressful events, i.e. psychological stress. That prolonged build-up of cortisol over time has all kinds of effects on learning and mental health,” he explains.

David raises a recent theory that physical activity helps your body minimise the effects of a stressful event by teaching it to releases an advantageous amount of cortisol in times of stress.

In our busy student lives, how should we then reap the full benefits of exercise?

Here are five practical tips to do so!

1) Better late than never 

David quotes research done by Eli Puterman on the relationship between physical activity levels and stress response in adults.

The study revealed that physically active individuals reacted less to a similar stressful event relative to those who were inactive.

What was more interesting however, was that inactive participants who joined the exercise bandwagon just before the stressful event occurred had a much more positive response relative to those who remained inactive throughout.

This goes to show it is never too late to exercise and reap those fantastic benefits to lower university stress, which in turn improves academic performance.

2) Quantity vs Quality

David’s recent research while developing the Burn 2 Learn project hinges on a simple idea.

“The less time you have to work, the harder you work,” he says. Everyone is busy, and when it’s down to the crunch, taking an 8-minute workout pays off its weight in adrenaline.

David recommends HIIT for short sessions (5 – 15 minutes) and strength training for longer sessions. A balance of these leads to a more holistic physique.

3) Exercise Outdoors

Not every exercise has to be kept within four walls. In fact, research has shown that it is better to break out of them.

“The same dose of physical activity done in a natural environment has enhanced mental health effects compared to the activity done indoors,” David points out. Research backs the great outdoors as the best place to be when working your body out.

4) Find your physical jam

David advises us to find exercise we enjoy, this way you’re more likely to make it a staple activity in your day-to-day life. Add some social spice to the mix and reap further benefits to your physical endeavours too!

The psychosocial mechanism behind exercising with family and friends helps reduce stress whilst also motivating you to remain active. A socially-distant safe way to do this is by attending an online zoom fitness class with a friend, or share workout plans with each other and facetime for accountability and socialisation!

5) Sleep is NOT for the weak

“Being more physically active helps you sleep. Sleep has the strongest predictors on mental health and cognitive function,” David continues half-jokingly, “If you don’t get a good night’s sleep, it is as bad as being badly drunk while solving problems and performing cognitive tasks.”

However, he warns us of exercising vigorously close to bed time as this may hinder a good night’s sleep. It’s bliss to knock off after a productive day sprinkled with exercise.

“The temptation is that when you are coming up to exams, you kind of cram in and sort of sacrifice doing activities so that you can get that extra hour of study,” David warns. “Taking away some time to study to get active is not only going to improve your mental health, but also it will improve your performance in those exams.”

“Being active and staying fit is going to support all aspects of your physical, cognitive and social health,” he concludes.

So get out there and give your body the burn to learn!

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