Get your brain in shape

We take a look at how a healthy body feeds a healthy mind and, in turn, can boost performance during studies, revision and exams

Many people exercise to tone thighs, build up biceps or flatten tummies. But working up a sweat can also improve the performance of your mind.

Research constantly shows that the performance of the brain is enhanced considerably by regular exercise. Working out can literally bulk up our brains to allow them to perform better at tasks that require concentration and recall.

Improving cognitive function

Although researchers aren’t 100% sure how exercise leads to better cognitive function, they are learning how it physically benefits the brain. To start with, aerobic exercise pumps more blood through the body including to the brain. More blood to the brain means more oxygen and, therefore, a better-nourished brain and highly nourished tissue.

In a study published in the journal Perceptual and Motor Skills, women were found to perform 20% better during memory tests after running on a treadmill compared to their performance before exercise. Women also increased their problem-solving abilities by the same levels post exercise.

Leading UK public school Harrow closely monitors the exam results of its First XI cricket team because they play a high number of matches that take students out of their lessons on a regular basis. School officials repeatedly report that they find the team’s exam results to be better than expected.

A huge study of male teenagers in Sweden (1.2 million respondents) found those who were fit were also more likely to have a high IQ and go on to university or further education.

Getting started

There is no need to start off too eagerly at first. Consider starting off by doing just 15 minutes a day perhaps and working up gradually to 45 minutes or an hour of continuous working out. Even a 30-minute cardiovascular session will pump extra blood to the brain, delivering oxygen and nutrients needed to perform at maximum efficiency.

To really enjoy the benefits of exercise on a continual basis it is important to regularly exercise rather than start and stop again. The benefits on the brain from exercise – in a similar way to the muscles in our bodies – begin to wear off after several weeks. By starting to exercise in bite-sized periods of time, you are more likely to feel encouraged rather than deterred from carrying on.

There are a variety of aerobic exercises to consider such as team sports including five-a-side football, tennis, jogging, gym work outs, cycling, yoga, swimming or regular walking. All of these activities are guaranteed to help flood the brain with blood and the chemicals that can enhance memory, problem solving and decision making.

For some study can even be combined with exercise. Learning through audio on an iPod or reading while riding an exercise bike at low intensity is relatively straightforward and easy to manage – although certainly not everybody’s ideal solution.

Physical activity can also be integrated while revising. A number of education experts suggest walking and stretching for five to 10 minutes during every hour of revision.

‘Exercise is the single best thing you can do for your brain in terms of mood, memory, and learning,’ says Harvard Medical School psychiatrist John Ratey, author of the book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. ‘Even 10 minutes of activity changes your brain for the better.’

"The research that’s going into brain activity at the moment suggests the reason may be that in those who are active, more oxygen gets to the brain. The brain is then better equipped to take more in and be receptive to new things. "

Angela Balding - Health Education Unit, Exeter University