I constantly seek out the best scientific information available to help my clients with their problems. And at this time of year, a big one is Exams!!
With this in mind, I decided to re-read one of my favourite books about brain science. It’s called “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” by John J. Ratey, MD, Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. The book is a fascinating insight into the transformative effects of exercise on the brain.
Creating the Right Environment for your Brain to Learn
Ratey demonstrates how ‘exercise creates an environment in which the brain is ready, willing and able to learn’.
Physical exercise sparks biological changes in the brain, encouraging brain cells to bind to one another. These connections between cells are necessary for the brain to learn.
Ratey uses an example from a school in Naperville, Illinois. where an innovative approach to a school fitness program improved test scores, as well as classroom behaviour and the students’ general health and wellbeing. The PE program was accessible to all students and was based on each student’s physical ability. It was designed to raise the students’ heart rates, and they were graded in terms of effort.
The studies showed that students who did some aerobic exercise, especially before school, for example, a mile run in the gym, were achieving dramatic results. They were more prepared to learn, their focus and mood improved, and they were less fidgety and more motivated in class.
Boosting your Brain Energy!
In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning indirectly, at a cellular level by improving the brains potential to log in and process new information.
When the brain needs to take in new information this demand causes activity between neurons. The more activity there is, the stronger the attraction and it becomes easier for the signal to fire and make connections.
Exercise produces a protein called BDNF (Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor.) Its role is to stimulate the production of new brain cells and to strengthen existing ones. John Ratey MD describes this as ‘Miracle Gro for the Brain’.
Carl Cotman Neuroscientist supports these findings and suggests that BDNF gives the brain the tools it needs to take in information, to process it, connect it, remember it and put it in context.
We don’t need to be a neuroscientist to realise that this is going to be very helpful in revising, helping us to remember the information needed in our exams.
Feeling stressed and anxious before an exam is normal. Some people are able to use feelings of stress to help them stay focused and motivated. Others find the pressure too much and perform worse than they should in the actual exam.
Stress is a natural response evolved by human beings in order to protect us from danger. When faced with a stressful situation, a hormone is released which causes various physiological changes. Faster heart rate, sweaty palms, shallow breathing, churning stomach!
Equipping us to fight a polar bear but not so helpful when preparing for exams!
According to John Ratey’s research, exercise is an important tool in managing stress. Exercise induces the stress response but it doesn’t flood the body with the stress hormone cortisol.
For most students, in the run-up to exams time becomes very precious. It is tempting to spend every minute revising. Adding exercise into your daily routine is a luxury you can’t afford. In fact, many schools now advise parents and students to drop extracurricular activities during the exam period.
But in fact, taking time out to exercise your body will make the hours you spend studying more effective. Exercise releases stress-relieving hormones so that you feel more relaxed and in control when you return to your studies.
Exercise creates the right environment for your brain to learn effectively . Exercise gives your brain a much-needed boost, building stronger neural connections which help you to learn and retain information when you go back to the books. And exercise helps you relax so that you sleep better and feel calmer .
A 30-minute period of exercise each day will help to keep you confident and focussed. And it will reap rewards for you when those exam results are published!