Does exercise boosts academic performance?
With exam season approaching, is it best to scale back your sport commitments and training or to put your sport first and fit your revision in around your training ?
I first came across the idea that exercise improves academic performance when I was recommended the book ‘Spark’ written by Dr John Ratey, a professor of clinical psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. First published in 2009, Spark was inspired by the changes in academic performance seen at a group of schools in Illinois when they started teaching sport as a life skill, literally using exercise to turn on the brain to learn. The 10minute video below was filmed in 2012 and is by Dr John Ratey talking about this research.
HOW MIGHT EXERCISE BENEFIT LEARNING ?
Increasing blood flow and stimulation
Lower oxygen levels in the blood reduce our ability to concentrate, and when you can’t concentrate it becomes harder to learn new information or remember information you studied in the past. Movement and exercise increase breathing and heart rate, so that more blood flows to the brain, increasing available oxygen, enhancing energy production and boosting waste removal. Cerebral blood supply has been shown to grow in response to exercise in animal studies and the evidence in humans is growing. The picture below is taken from research done by Dr Chuck Hillmans, using MRi scans he has shown that just 20minutes of walking radically improves the level of activity in the brain and that physical fitness not only enhances memory in children but boosts the ability to solve difficult problems (1)
Stress or anxiety even if it is very short term has been found to impair brain-cell communication in the areas associated with learning and memory and the stress-induced hormone cortisol is shown to inhibit the growth of new brain cells and cause poor memory performance. Physical exercise particularly continuous rhythmic aerobic exercises such as running, cycling and swimming reduce stress, anxiety and frustration and increases neurotransmitter levels. Scans of athletes’ brains after exercise show enhanced released of endorphins in parts of the brain that are involved emotion (2) and several other brain chemicals contribute to us feeling better when we exercise, including serotonin.
Even better news for athletes is that regular training has been found to increase the threshold for cortisol release, making the body more resilient to the effects of stress. The more physical activity you do, the more efficient the body becomes at dealing with both physical and mental stressors, so regular exercise has a protective function (3).
MEMORY – Brain Plasticity and Neurogenesis
Brain plasticity is the ability of the brain to develop new neuronal connections, to change and learn. Exercise during adolescence has been found to increases neurotrophic factors such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) and insulin-like growth factor 1 (IGF-1) which are necessary for survival of neurons, neuronal differentiation, and synaptic plasticity (4). BDNF has been particularly associated with long term memory (5).
Research has shown that intense aerobic activity can actually grow new brain cells in a part of the brain responsible for memory, the hippocampus. Research has found that vocabulary learning was 20% faster when it took place after the high intensity exercise compared to the low and sedentary conditions. Learning was slowest after rest, suggesting that any level of exercise is good but that high intensity is best. High intensity exercise also led to the strongest increases in both BDNF and catecholamine levels in the brain suggesting that the way physical activity improves memory may be through these chemical mediators (6) A regular programme of cardio exercise several times a week has been shown to produce up to 30% more cells in the hippocampus and participants in studies have improved performance in memory tests (7). Exercise has also been shown to increase the expression of the genes required for rapid neural growth in the brain (8).
Spatial Memory & Executive function
Executive function is not a uniformly defined term but is used to describe the group of cognitive processes involved in our response non-routine situations (9). Some of the processes that are included in executive function are problem solving, planning, sequencing, selective attention, sustained attention, multi-tasking, cognitive flexibility and ability to deal with shock (10), all of which are very important when revising and sitting exams. Studies in footballers have found that elite players have higher executive function than lower division players and that fit individuals who play sport regularly have higher executive scores than people who don’t do regular sport (11).
Spatial Memory is the part of memory responsible for regulating and encoding information about the surroundings and orientation in space and is known to be primarily controlled by the hippocampus. Exercise has a large impact on hippocampal growth and neurogenesis, neuroimaging has provided evidence of larger hippocampi in physically fit adults these individuals also show better performance on various spatial memory tasks (12).
There is not much UK research that has specifically looked at how students’ grades are affected by the amount of exercise they do. However, research conducted in other countries shows a clear link between physical activity and academic performance in school children (13,14). A recent study in university students who exercised for 20 minutes or more, ‘most days of the week’, found average grades were around 10% higher than those who did not do regular exercise. This effect was seen even after taking into account other factors, like how much time students spent studying (15).
SLEEP – Exercise improves sleep and sleep improves memory
Anyone who has heard me speak, will know about my obsession with sleep and biorhythms and their links with good health. On top of causing bad health and energy problems, sleep deprivation has been shown to reduce people’s performance on mental tasks, including memory tests. Exam anxiety, late night studying and computer use can interfere with sleep patterns, just at the time when we need to feel refreshed and alert. Research shows that during sleep our brain’s ‘plasticity’ increases improving learning and memory and that overnight the things we have been studying during the day become more permanently stored in our brains (16). Physical activity is a good way to wear ourselves out to get a better night’s sleep. Active teenagers (who averaged 18 hours of exercise per week) reported sleeping for longer, having a better quality of sleep, taking less time falling asleep and waking less during the night, than those who were considered relatively inactive (5 hours of exercise or less per week). What’s more, the active group also reported feeling less tired and being able to concentrate better during the day (17).
There are definite scientific reasons to build brisk physical activity or exercise sessions into your usual weekly timetable and these are even more important during exams. Exercise can help you feel calmer and more relaxed, increase the feel-good brain chemicals, and allow you to get a better night’s sleep – all of which will help you concentrate better and could improve your memory. AND exercise has been shown to increase oxygen supply to the brain and the levels of vital neurotrophic factors that might actually improve our ability to learn and retrieve memories.
There is still a lot of research that needs doing before its possible to say exactly what types of exercise are best but being fit is likely to help memory and problem solving, aerobic exercise can lower stress and exam anxiety and high intensity exercise improves blood flow to the brain and raises BDNF, priming the brain to learn.
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(2) Boecker, H. et al. (2008). The runner’s high: Opioidergic mechanisms in the human brain. Cerebral Cortex, 18, 2523-2531
(3)Klaperski, von Dawans, Heinrichs & Fuchs 2014. Effects of a 12-week endurance training program on the physiological response to psychosocial stress in men: a randomized controlled trial. 10.1007/s10865-014-9562-9
(4) Uysal, N., Tugyan, K., Kayatekin, B.M., Acikgoz, O., Bagriyanik, H.A., Gonenca, S., Ozdemir, D., Aksua, I., Topcu, A., Semin, I. (2005) The effects of regular aerobic exercise in adolescent period on hippocampal neuron density, apoptosis and spatial memory. ‘’Neuroscience Letters’’ 241-245.
(5)Bekinschtein P, Cammarota M, Katche C, Slipczuk L, Rossato JI, Goldin A, Izquierdo I, Medina JH (February 2008). “BDNF is essential to promote persistence of long-term memory storage”. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 105 (7): 2711–6.
(6)Winter,B., Breitenstein, C., Mooren, F.C., Voelker, K., Fobkes, M., et al. (2007). High impact running improves learning. Neurobiology of Learning and Memory,87(4), 597-609
(7)Cotman, C., Berchtold, N. (2002) Exercise: a behavioural intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity. Trends in Neuroscience. 295-301.
(8)Molteni, Raffaella; Zheng, Jun-Qi; Ying, Zhe; Gómez-Pinilla, Fernando; Twiss, Jeffery L. (2004). “Voluntary exercise increases axonal regeneration from sensory neurons”. Proceedings of the National Academy of Science (Ncbi.nlm.nih.gov) 101 (22): 8473.
(9)Friedman NP, Miyake A, Young SE, DeFries JC, Corley RP, et al. (2008) Individual differences in executive functions are almost entirely genetic in origin. Journal of Experimental Psychology: General 137: 201–225.
(10)Chan RCK, Shum D, Toulopoulou T, Chen EYH (2008) Assessment of executive functions: Review of instruments and identification of critical issues. Archives of Clinical Neusopsychology 23: 201–216.
(11)Vestberg T, Gustafson R, Maurex L, Ingvar M, Petrovic P (2012) Executive Functions Predict the Success of Top-Soccer Players. PLoS ONE 7(4): e34731. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0034731
(12) Olson, Eadie, Ernst & Christie 2006. Environmental enrichment and voluntary exercise massively increase neurogenesis in the adult hippocampus via dissociable pathways. Hippocampus 16(3). 250-60
(13)Castelli, D.M., Hillman, C., Buck, S. & Erwin, H. (2007). Physical fitness and academic achievement in third- and fifth-grade students. Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology, 29, 239-252.
(14)Trost, S.G. (2007). Physical education, physical activity and academic performance. Active Living Research, Fall Issue.
(15)Flynn, J., Coe, D., & Ode, J. (2010). The association between vigorous physical activity and Grade Point Average in college students. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 42, 429-430.
(16)Walker, M. P., & Stickgold, R. (2006). Sleep, memory, and plasticity. Annual Review of Psychology, 57, 139-166.
(17)Brand, S. et al. (2010). High exercise levels are related to favorable sleep patterns and psychological functioning in adolescents: A comparison of athletes and controls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46, 133-141.