The life of a student-athlete is not easy. Balancing school, sports and other activities is a constant juggling act, with minimal downtime. But what if I told you all that your physical activity was actually helping you become a better student? It's true.
Working out isn't just good for the body, it's good for the mind. Multiple studies have found that exercise has synergistic effects on brain power. Here are five ways that working out can make you smarter.
1. Instant Brain Boost
Most athletes know they won't see results after a single workout session. You work hard in the weight room or during practice every day, and slowly but surely you get stronger, faster and better. However, the mental effects of working are manifested much more rapidly.
A 2013 study found that "exercise holds immediate benefits for affect and cognition in younger and older adults." The researchers tested cognitive performance with a basic n-back test, a test that requires users to remember whether certain stimuli (numbers, letters, shapes, colors, etc.) match ones from previous turns. In this study, the participants had to remember the arrangement and order of appearance of a group of numbers.
The exercise group performed 15 minutes of moderate-intensity stationary cycling prior to the test, while the control group did not. The exercise group did significantly better on the n-back test than the control group—even after a single, 15-minute, moderate-intensity workout. "Exercise led to faster response times on a working memory task than the control condition across age," the study found. While sculpting a six-pack might take dozens of hours in the gym, one short session could be enough to boost your brain power.
2. A Bigger Brain
Most people hit the gym looking to reshape their bodies. Some are looking to slim down, and others are looking to bulk up. But what if I told you working out can reshape your brain?
A 2007 study found that "aerobic exercise differentially targets the dentate gyrus, a hippocampal subregion important for memory and implicated in cognitive aging." Translation: aerobic exercise was found to stimulate the growth of new brain cells in the dentate gyrus, a part of the brain critical for memory and learning.
As we get older, our brains can shrink—in some areas by as much as 25 percent! The shrinkage isn't superficial. It's linked to the cognitive and movement disorders that typically affect elderly people. Several studies have found exercise, specifically aerobic exercise, fights this shrinking and helps produce new brain cells.
Similar results have been found in studies of animals. One such study found that "mice and rats that ran for a few weeks generally had about twice as many new neurons in their hippocampi as sedentary animals."
Although much of this research has been geared toward older adults, it certainly doesn't hurt young athletes to include aerobic exercise in their routines—especially considering that a sedentary lifestyle has been found to negatively impact the brain. No matter what age you are, regular exercise will help keep your brain sharp in the present and combat mental degeneration in the future.
3. Studying + Slow Exercise = Success
It's recently been found that studying while you exercise can result in increased retention. A 2013 study found that "light to moderate exercise while encoding new vocabulary" had a positive effect. The study took a group of young, healthy German females who had no prior experience speaking Polish and divided them into three groups.
One group simply relaxed in a chair for 30 minutes prior to listening to a set number of Polish vocabulary words (and their German equivalents) via headphones. A second group rode a stationary bike moderately for 30 minutes prior to listening to the same set of words. A third group rode a stationary bike gently while listening to the words via headphones.
The third group performed significantly better on a recall test than the other two groups.
One reason why light exercise might increase brain power is blood flow. When we exercise, blood flow throughout our body, including to the brain, is increased. This means more oxygen and more energy, makes our brains perform better. A different study attempted to determine if reading a textbook during intense exercise would produce similar results. That study did not find the same advantage, likely due to the brain getting overwhelmed during intense exercise.
If you're looking for a change of pace—no pun intended—hop on a stationary bike or treadmill and exercise at low intensity while you read or listen to study material. It might be what takes you from a B+ to an A on that big exam. And you'd rather be in the gym than the library anyway, right?
4. It Chills You Out
When assignments pile up, it's easy to get stressed out. And when you're stressed, you won't do your best work. You'll either get overwhelmed and not do much of anything, or you'll speed through the work giving it little quality thought.
Working out is a great stress reliever, and it can help you get in the right state of mind for learning. According to the Mayo Clinic, exercise helps produce endorphins, the feel-good neurotransmitters that relieve stress. Exercise also can increase self-confidence and reduce anxiety. What's your ideal mood for studying or working on an important assignment? Is it stressed, anxious and unconfident, or relaxed, happy and optimistic? Exactly.
5. Built-in Breaks
Their busy schedules prevent student-athletes from focusing on their assignments and working for six hours straight. They've got workouts, practices and games to worry about. You might think that students who have the time for marathon studying sessions have an advantage. But you would be wrong. The best way to learn is to break up your work into small chunks.
Studying or working produces diminishing returns. The longer you do it without a break, the less efficient you usually become. So locking yourself in the library all night is not actually the best way to do quality work. The fact that your schedule requires you to take breaks to work out or go to practice is a blessing in disguise. Although it might seem like you're taking precious time away from studying, it forces you to break up your work into manageable chunks—which turns out to be the best way to work, after all.
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