Ready, set, concentrate: Activities to supercharge your studies and exams
Learn how exercise can improve your health and problem-solving skills, and how to get active without trying too hard.
The verdict is in: sedentary lifestyles (a.k.a. spending everyday sitting down for long periods of time) are dangerous for your health. Some have even compared sitting to the new smoking. Now if that doesn’t light a fire under your butt, how’s this? Research shows that being sedentary leads to increased risks of cancer, heart disease and dementia. Plus a handful of other annoyingly unhelpful ailments.
If you won’t get moving for your health's sake, maybe you’ll do it for really good test scores. Studies show that physical activity is extremely beneficial for your brain. It is a muscle after all. So, get on up and – in the wise words of Olivia Newton-John – let’s get physical, physical…
Benefits of exercise on your brain
The hippocampus is the part of our brain that responds to aerobic exercise (that is, any physical activity that elevates your heart rate and oxygen intake). Your hippocampus’ structure actually grows as your body’s cardiovascular fitness improves.
Now, because this part of the brain hosts our learning and memory systems, it’s a no-brainer (ha!) that physical exercise is closely related to better learning outcomes. Interspersing studies with 20-minute chunks of cardio has been proven to improve attention spans. And exercise can also help memory formation; for example, researchers found that walking while learning a foreign language can help new words stick.
Being active can help with problem solving
Being free range is not only good for chickens; our creative brains thrive on it too. Walking, either on a treadmill or around campus, can boost ‘divergent thinking’: the free-roaming, lightbulb-moment-generating part of the creative process. That’s why brainstorming sessions are usually better done while on the move (case in point: every single episode of Law & Order).
Ideas for getting active without trying too hard
Being physical doesn’t have to mean formal time in the gym. Incidental exercise is just as effective. Here are some simple tips:
- stand on public transport during your commute
- set an alarm for you to walk around the room every 30 minutes
- opt for the stairs rather than escalator or lift
- place your laptop on a higher surface for a makeshift standing desk
- stand up or walk around when you want to talk on the phone or text
- limit your time binge-watching Netflix – Who are we kidding? That’s impossible. OK, maybe try these TV-friendly exercise moves instead.
- take the long way home on your coffee or tea runs
- set up walking meetings with your supervisors if possible
Exam prep to keep you in top form
We did the heavy lifting for you and spoke to a health expert at Swinburne Health and Wellbeing. Here’s their advice on how to structure your routine to avoid stress during exams.
1. Structure your day
This is important in order to maintain a clear sense of purpose, and make sure you are still looking after yourself (which is so important for general physical and mental health during exam time!). Schedule in:
- study time (including what you’ll study and for how long)
- meal breaks – Plan nutritious meals and snacks at regular intervals throughout the day. This can give you something to look forward to as well.
- physical breaks
- your finish time – Set a time that you plan to finish studying for the day. Include some ‘relaxation time’ afterwards to help you switch off and sleep well, so you'll be ready for another study session the day after.
2. Take breaks
Taking yourself away from your desk can sometimes help you process complex information. You never know; when you get back, that really tricky problem might make just a bit more sense.
Just checking your phone at your desk doesn’t count! Physical exercise and a change of scene help to refresh your body and mind. Some ideas for effective study breaks:
- go for a short walk around the block
- chat to a friend while walking – Having a social chat, either in person or on the phone, can help to reduce any building anxiety and distract your mind from study.
- stretch your body – Stretching from 10 to 15 minutes at a time can help to reduce muscle tension, making you feel more relaxed. It also reduces your chance of getting tension headaches with too much study.
- make yourself a nutritious meal or snack (and enjoy time away from your desk) – Keeping yourself nourished is important. Too much sugar or caffeine can increase feelings of anxiety and may disrupt your sleep.
3. Set study goals
Each day make a list of the things you want to achieve that day. Make it realistic. If it’s unrealistic, you might not achieve it, and then you might feel worse. At the end of the day, review your progress. You might be surprised how much you have achieved!
4. Set a broader study plan
That way, you can schedule in days when you know you’ll be busy and allocate time or days to each subject you need to study for. Having a realistic plan can help keep you on track. And not to mention, it helps keep everything feeling under control.
What’s your excuse?
Sorry to burst your bubble, but we’ve heard it all before. Our health expert at Swinburne Health and Wellbeing gives some practical advice on how to get over that hurdle to exercise:
"It costs so much!"
Yes, gym memberships can be expensive. But you don’t need a gym membership to be active! Go for a walk or run around a park. Visit your local council website or check out different ‘walking maps’ to find a scenic track near you.
“I don’t have time!”
The truth is: there’s never enough time anyway! It doesn’t take much to be active – 30 minutes before your first class in the morning or even 15 minutes up and down the stairs between classes. Or just get off the train two stops early. Even 10-minute exercise sessions make a difference.
“But it’s just so boring.”
You mean you don’t have a virtual reality screen set up in front of your treadmill? Just kidding. We’re no Tony Starks either. But instead of spending money in a cafe, you can catch up with a friend by going for a walk or swimming. Bonus points for mental health perks too!
Did you know?
Wellbeing at Swinburne offers a full range of health services, including fully confidential counselling, to students with both on-site and online options available.
Call +61 3 9214 8483 to make an appointment, or register and book online. You will need your student ID (or photo ID if you are not a student), Medicare card or OSHC details, and your Centrelink Health Care Card if you have one.
Want to know more about managing depression with exercise?
Download the Black Dog Institue fact sheet to learn about helpful strategies to keep you motivated to become more active and where you can get help.
Some more helpful links
Benefits of exercise on mental health
Exercise and mental health recovery
Stop, breathe and think
Pocket Yoga HD