Updated: May 22, 2020
Whether your high school exams are in full swing, or you are a student athlete at a college or university, exam time can be a battle. It’s easy for students to fall off the wagon in terms of training this time of year, and end up in a massive hole to climb out of after the grind has come to an end.
This article will share with you a few simple steps you can take to help you stay healthy and crush your exams without sabotaging your body.
1) Move as Much as Possible
We all know that we can’t study for hours on end without taking breaks, and that we tend to study more effectively when we do. So why not make the most of your break and do something that will not only help out your brain, but actually help your entire body function better? Move. You may have heard that sitting is the new smoking, and as a kinesiology graduate who has read countless studies on this topic, I couldn’t agree more.
This is one of many papers describing these negative health outcomes of too much sitting. On top of the major long term health outcomes just by getting up and moving around, you will experience some quick benefits. When we move, oxygen-rich blood is delivered throughout our body (including the brain), our muscles warm-up, our joints begin to move a little more smoothly, our metabolism functions more efficiently, and we have a massive hormonal response. How does this influence your ability to study? Here are a few important benefits:
Exercise is a natural antidepressant. Many students experience some level of depression during exams or difficult school stretches and exercise has been shown time and time again to effectively protect against these states (Source 2).
Exercise reduces anxiety. All most all of us feel a level of anxiety before important tests and there is a ton of research linking exercise (even in small amounts) to reduced anxiety and perception of stress (Source 3).
Improved memory function. Yeah, exercise actually helps your memory, and this meta-analysis takes a look at the massive body of research behind this claim (Source 4).
Despite the amazing effects exercise can have on your study quality, we see this one skipped over all the time. We are not suggesting you go to the gym and max out or do hill sprints for 2 hours at this time, and we do often reduce the workload for teams during exams for this reason. However sticking to a workout schedule or simply getting up from your desk and moving for 10 minutes at a time, can go along way in giving you a cognitive advantage that also supports a variety of other functions for your health and physical performance.
2) Keep on Top of Nutrition
I know this one can be tough, and junk food is often a go-to during exams, but sticking to a healthy diet is greatly important. Without making this a nutrition article, let's keep a few things in mind assuming you are already eating a reasonably balanced diet:
Fruits and Veggies for snacks:
Fruits are a great source of fuel from natural sugars that won’t give you the same highs and lows as processed sugars. Foods high in processed sugars can send you into altered mood states and impair your memory (Source 5), so despite the urge, try to reach for a piece of fruit to satisfy those sugar cravings instead of the cookies. Veggies also serve as a good snack, especially if you are someone that eats non stop when working as they are a great low calorie option. Both fruits and veggies provide a good chunk of your necessary vitamins and minerals as well as antioxidants to keep your body healthy (being sick during exam time won’t help the grades).
The power of fatty acids on brain performance has been a hot topic lately, and we have already discussed the benefits of fish oils here (link). Keep your healthy fats high and consider supplementing with fish oils as they will not only enhance your brain function but also help stabilize your mood and anxiety states. (Source 6, Source 7).
Although you may think you are drinking enough, caffeine is dehydrating so coffee doesn’t count. If you are a coffee person try to keep the intake to 1-2 cups per day and, ramp up your water intake . I recommend getting into the habit always having a water bottle nearby, (closed because your laptop won’t appreciate a spill) and sipping on water before you feel thirsty.
3) Use the Couch Stretch
A whole section about a stretch? You bet. When you are sitting, your hip flexors are stuck in a shortened position. Furthermore, if you are a hockey player you likely already have terrible hip mobility due to the chronic positions demanded by the sport. This leads to a multitude of issues, with an achy low back being a common symptom as the pelvis is tilted out of its neutral position. More often than not the solution is not a massage or foam roller, rather loosening up the hip flexors with this stretch.
What makes this stretch awesome is that you can literally do it on your desk chair. Get into a kneeling position and pop your back foot up on the chair behind you. Avoid hyperextending the low back by tucking your hips under you, and engaging your abs by flexing as if to brace for a punch in the stomach.
You will feel this stretch run from your quad all the way up through the front of your hip.
For every 30 minutes of sitting I would try to hold this stretch for a minimum of 30 seconds each side.
4) Put your Phone Away
This one may seem simple but your cell phone may be the biggest thing distracting you from your study. Try as you may to ignore it, but every time the screen lights up for a notification it is stealing your attention away from that detail you have been fighting to memorize. Keeping it on silent in your bag is a good start, and to take this one step forward you can download an app to block your social media apps for a set amount of time.
However if you really want to limit this distraction, your best bet is to leave the phone in another room (at least you now have to move off your chair to get to it) . This study (Source 8) published about a year ago showed that simply being in the presence of your phone can negatively affect your brain function.
5) You are Not a Superhero, and You Still Need to Sleep
The impact of sleep on performance has been discussed (here), and it may come as no surprise that sleep is just as important when studying. Although many students feel the key to success is to essentially forgo their sleep for a week to give themselves more time to study, this myth has been debunked (Source 9). Some of us can get by on less than others, but everyone needs their sleep, and staying up until 4 am doesn’t make you more dedicated. While I am not suggesting we lay in bed for 12 hours every night, it is important to understand that above and beyond staying healthy and feeling alert, sleep has a pivotal role in memory.
Both REM (rapid eye movement) and SWS (slow-wave sleep) are phases of our sleep cycle where memory is consolidated (Source 10) . We can read and read the same formula or fact as much as we like, but what makes it actually stick in our long term memory is this consolidation phase that occurs during sleep.
If you are someone who always feels prepared during studying but then blanks on a test, it might be worth considering how well you are sleeping and if you are giving yourself the sleep time necessary for these memories to stick in.
The late nights might help you feel more prepared at the time but the next day, the foggy state you find yourself in from not sleeping, will say otherwise. It has been shown that operating under severe sleep deprivation is comparable to being legally intoxicated under the influence of alcohol (Source 11). You wouldn’t write a test drunk, so you probably shouldn’t expect to be able to write one very well after an all-nighter either.
There you have it, 5 tips to help you study a little more effectively and still feel like an athlete during your exams. Although these tips may seem simple, holding yourself to do them is the challenge. I know I wasn’t always perfect with these during high school or university, but by slowly making them a habit, exams become a little bit more manageable.
Go crush your exams!
About the Author:
Isaac Seabrook, B.Sc/CSCS
Isaac is a Strength & Conditioning Coach who earned his Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology from Queens University, where he also interned as the Kingston Frontenacs (OHL) Strength Coach. Also interning with Gary Roberts & Hockey Canada, Isaac has worked with some of the world’s top hockey players. A former Goalie, Isaac serves as the Goalie Performance Specialist at Relentless Hockey along with continuing to work with elite players of all levels.
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