Degree In Sight
School officials say one simple change made reading and math scores soar at Illinois's Naperville Central High School: adding a new gym class.
Within one semester of implementing a new physical education class in which students learned how to monitor and maintain their own health and fitness, reading and math scores rose 20 percent among students who took the fitness class the hour directly before these two subjects.
Guidance counselors at the school now advise students to schedule their hardest subjects immediately after gym. Today, the school, located in Chicago's western suburbs, rates among Illinois's top for academic performance.
Psychology graduate students can learn from these high schoolers, says Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor John J. Ratey, MD. Exercise—particularly the aerobic sort—provides substantial benefits for learning: It improves attention, increases motivation, heightens the senses and—perhaps most important for harried grad students—decreases stress.
"Exercise helps produce new brain cells in the hippocampus, the Grand Central Station for memory," he says.
Miracle-Gro for the brain
Decades of research back Ratey's claims, much of which he discusses in his book "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" (Little, Brown, 2008). The key component of many of the benefits of exercise, he says, is a protein produced inside nerve cells when they are active called brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF. Years of research with rodents by scientists at the Institute for Brain Aging and Dementia at the University of California, Irvine, have shown that running increases the development of BDNF in mice, and the farther they run, the higher the level of BDNF production. And in a 2007 Neurobiology of Learning and Memory (Vol. 87, No. 4) study with humans, University of Muenster researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster following intense exercise—two sprints of three minutes each, separated by a two-minute break—compared with those who performed moderate exercise or who rested. The exercise also led to higher rates of BDNF and more sustained BDNF levels during the learning task. The protein, Ratey says, seems to serve as Miracle-Gro for the brain, fertilizing brain cells to keep them functioning and growing, as well as spurring the development of new neurons.
As for evidence of the ways exercise reduces stress, a 2008 Leeds Metropolitan University study of 201 white-collar workers published in the International Journal of Workplace Health Management (Vol. 1, No. 3) shows that workers who took an aerobics class, lifted weights or participated in yoga during their lunch hour experienced improved mood and performance, leading to better concentration, work-based relationships and resilience to stress.
More recent studies show how exercise improves memory. In an experiment in the April Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise (Vol. 41, No. 4), 21 University of Illinois students memorized a string of letters and then picked them out from a list that was flashed at them. After doing one of three things for 30 minutes—sitting quietly, running on a treadmill or lifting weights—they performed the letter test again. During retests directly following the activities and after a 30-minute cool down, the students who ran had significantly quicker reaction times and were more accurate than those who had rested or lifted weights.
The evidence is clear that exercise benefits both body and mind, and it's an important component of staying healthy as a graduate student. But with days and nights already packed with classes, internship applications, exam preparation and family obligations, it may seem impossible to add a daily exercise routine into the mix.
"The experience of graduate school is one where it's very easy to walk around like a floating head," says clinical psychologist Alison Miller, PhD, author of "Finish Your Dissertation Once and For All: How to Overcome Psychological Barriers, Get Results, and Move On With Your Life" (APA, 2008). "You get so caught up in the business of your deadlines and day-to-day to-dos that you lose contact with the fact that you actually have a body."
But it's easier than you might think to reconnect, she says. Students who are not exercising at all should try incorporating daily "exercise snacks," such as taking the stairs whenever possible, she says. Busy students can also work exercise into their daily routines by walking or biking to campus. And if you're already a sporadic exerciser, you may simply need an exercise buddy to make early-morning runs a daily habit.
Clinical psychology student Jesse Matthews, of Immaculata University in Pennsylvania, says he turns family time into a workout by going bike riding or walking with his kids, which also helps instill the importance of exercise with them.
"With our family time so limited, exercising together has many benefits," Matthews says. "We can be positive models for our kids, we all get to exercise, which is good for everyone's health, and we get to really just be with our kids, not thinking about anything else."
Similarly, if you find yourself in need of socializing as well as exercise, invite your friends over to play a game of pick-up basketball or to join you for a yoga DVD, says sport psychologist Kate F. Hays, PhD, author of "Move Your Body: Tone Your Mood" (New Harbinger, 2002).
"It really just comes back to finding what works for you and using that time to take a break from studying, research and all the other things that demand your attention," Hays says.
That may mean finding a fitness class or adult sports league you really enjoy, or planning your treadmill time during the hour of your favorite TV show. And to help you stick with an exercise routine, schedule it in every day like a class or group study session. Also, keeping track of your progress—even if that simply means checking exercise off your to-do list every day—can be an excellent exercise motivator, she says.
Jessica Raslowsky, a psychology student at California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo, agrees. "There's not a great deal of time left for exercise between classes, practicum and studying, but I make it count," says Raslowsky, who stays active by riding her bike, taking her dog to the beach and playing Nintendo's "Wii Fit." "You have to keep yourself healthy or all this studying won't matter."
But while working through practical barriers is key, the most important way for students to stay committed to exercising, says Miller, is by reflecting on their reasons for staying fit. Perhaps you have a parent who has struggled with chronic health problems, and you don't want to face a similar fate. Or maybe you just love feeling strong and healthy.
"Sustaining any behavior that you don't necessarily feel like doing," says Miller, "requires continually connecting it to what matters to you in your life."
Amy Novotney is a writer in Chicago.