The Number One Thing You Need to Rock This Midterm Season
It’s been a few years since I graduated university but somehow, like phantom limb syndrome, every year around this time I feel a little uneasy. Like my body and mind are remembering the dread I would always feel around midterm season.
If you’re in school right now, I feel for you. I know how disorienting it can be when it’s only weeks after the start of the school year and you’re already having to think about and study for tests that might be worth up to 50% of your course grades. It’s giving me the creepy-crawlies just thinking about it.
So if studying for midterm season is the scariest part of your Halloween this year, this blog is for you. Because there is one thing in particular that you should be doing to give your cognitive function a major boost. Bonus: it will also help you look great in your Halloween costume.
The number one thing you need to be doing to rock this midterm season (and all tests and quizzes, for that matter) is… drumroll please…
That’s right. Exercise takes the prize over diet, sleep, mindfulness, medication, you name it, for your best study-ally (although those are all still super important, I must add).
But why exercise? Well that’s what this post is about! Today I’m going to tell you why, exactly, exercise is the top thing you can do to learn better, study smarter, and increase test performance. I’m also going to tell you the types of exercise that give you the biggest bang-for-your-cognitive-buck.
Why Exercise Is Number One
For those of you whose go-to study strategy is becoming a hermit, not leaving your room, cramming all night, and drinking more coffee in one night than you normally would in a week, I hate to break it to you, but you’re doing yourself a disservice!
You’ve heard the phrase “study smarter, not harder” before, right? Well that phrase applies here. Study breaks are super important, but strategic study breaks are what will really make a difference in your test performance.
In this case, we’re talking about taking regular breaks to exercise. In general, exercise is important for cognitive and mental health for one main reason: it improves the blood flow to your brain unlike anything else. By getting your blood pumping through your body, energizing nutrients and oxygen are able to get to the areas of the brain you need them most. It also happens to be free, and something you can do anywhere (broke students, rejoice!)
In addition to increasing blood flow, it also happens to increase the size of the hippocampus, one of the brain’s major centers of memory and mood. That’s not all, exercise also helps the hippocampus to be better protected from the negative effects of stress-related hormones like cortisol—even just a leisurely walk across campus has been shown to have this protective effect. As you probably already know, exercise also releases endorphins, which are happy brain chemicals that help you to cope with stress better. Something we all need, but especially those deep in the trenches of midterm season.
By far my favourite benefit of exercise though, is that it stimulates neurogenesis, which is your brain’s ability to generate new neurons. By stimulating the growth of new neurons through exercise, your neural connections become strengthened and in general, all your brain circuits get stronger and work better.
This is a major win for two reasons. One, as long as you keep exercising, your brain will stay young and sharp, independent of your biological age. (Though there are other factors that affect brain aging.) And two, for those of you who are studying for midterms, you can actually harness the power of neurogenesis to improve your test results by studying immediately after a workout. That’s right. Instead of leaving your workout as the last thing on your daily to do list, actually scheduling it before a big study session (and not foregoing it for more study time) will help with memory and concept recognition on the big day.
And finally, regular exercise is one of the best things you can do to regulate your circadian rhythm and improve sleep quality—another important factor in test performance (don’t even get me started on all-nighters).
The Best Types of Exercise for Your Brain
So hopefully I’ve now convinced you that exercise should be prioritized during midterm season. But are there specific forms of exercise that benefit the brain more than others?
Yes, there are! My three favourites include:
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT): Even short workouts can do the trick! When you exercise at max effort for short bursts of time, you really get your heart pumping oxygen to the brain. It also releases endorphins, lifts your mood (a must during the gloomies of study season), and makes you feel more energized. You don’t have to have special equipment or a gym membership to have a good HIIT workout. Have you ever done burpees? Lol I’m joking. There are tons of options for high-intensity, body-weight-only, low impact/noise (for those of you living in res or in an apartment), that are actually fun. Google it! And yeah, consider this homework.
Mindful Exercise: Exercises like yoga, PiQi, pilates, qi gong, walking, hiking, and kundalini yoga (different from regular yoga) are super helpful if you tend to have bad anxiety during midterm season. Mindful exercises are also great for increasing focus and energy, so they are perfect to do right before you hit the books for your most stressful courses.
Coordination Activities: Anything that involves a ball like table tennis, squash, badminton, and dodgeball, and dance-based workouts like Barre and Zumba are all great activities to do during midterm season. Not only are they fun and a great way to release pent-up energy and stress (and vent with a friend if it’s a two-person sport), these coordination-based workouts also boost activity in the cerebellum. The cerebellum contains 50% of your brain’s neurons and controls not only physical coordination but thought coordination as well. This means that keeping your mind sharp and focused during a test will be so much easier if you incorporate some of these workouts into your routine.
Well, that’s it folks. That’s the number one thing you need to rock this midterm season. And hey, if you’re not a student any more like me, you can still use this advice and apply it to improved work performance!
Student friends: the bottom line is the next time your friend from school asks you if you want to be on their intramural dodgeball team, go to a yoga class, or hit up the gym, you’re no longer allowed to tell them you’ve got to study! Good luck, friends!
And psst— If you want to learn more about your brain and how you can take care of it better, I highly recommend reading Dr. Daniel Amen’s book The End of Mental Illness. I’ve been reading it lately and it’s been mind-blowing. 10/10 would recommend.