Exam time is pressurising. Late nights, last minute preparation, irregular sleeping patterns and eating times are characteristic of exam period. Exam stress can result in anxiety and increased chances of succumbing to illnesses. Getting unwell can undermine your efforts and so maintaining good health and a positive attitude to study is key. Physical activity (PA) is a fantastic adjunct to help relieve stress during exams, whether its KS2 SATs, 11+, GCSEs or A-levels! In addition, PA actually has multiple benefits on brain function, helping you to study efficiently.
Cognition is the process through which an individual acquires knowledge and develops understanding via thought processes, experiences and study. Research on the effects of physical activity (PA) on the cognitive function of children shows improvements in attention; thinking capability; articulation as well as learning and memory.
Kubesch et al. (1) have shown that regularity of PA in children is positively correlated with their ability to focus within the classroom. Interestingly, those children who exercised were able to maintain their attention even through the third hour of lessons, which is usually the time when attentional processes start to deteriorate.
‘Thinking’ is defined in this context as the cognitive functions involved in abstract thinking, planning, creative thinking and assessing cause and effect. PA helps to develop creativity in children. Research has demonstrated that unorganised PA, such as going to the park, improves thinking capability more than organised sports activities, such as drills and circuits (2). However, it is important to note, that any physical exercise is better than none at all.
Articulation and Language
Scudder et al. (3) showed that there was a positive relationship between PA and lexical networks in children, allowing them to comprehend text, spell and detect grammar and syntax errors with greater accuracy.
Learning and Memory
Working memory is the type of memory used for short-term to middle-term retention of information and is important in reasoning and decision making. PA has been shown to improve working memory in 8-12-year olds as well as 12-14-year olds (1,4). Learning and cognitive flexibility also increases with PA, enhancing visuospatial memory as well.
All in all, it is clear that exercise has a plethora of benefits in cognition. In addition to these advantages, dopamine (the ‘feel-good’ hormone) increases in the body during and after exercise, helping you to maintain a positive outlook despite exams! In fact, as a result of the extensive research in PA, the UK Government and the NHS has issued the following guidelines for Physical Activity in children (5):
- All children and young people should engage in moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity for at least 60 minutes and up to several hours every day.
- Vigorous intensity activities, including those that strengthen muscle and bone, should be incorporated at least three days a week.
- All children and young people should minimise the amount of time spent being sedentary (sitting) for extended periods.
Incorporating PA is just one way in which you can uphold balance during exam time; getting enough sleep and nutrition are also key to the equilibrium.
Here are a few tips to help you obtain a healthy balance:
- Kubesch S., Walk L., Spitzer M., Kammer T., Lainburg A., Heim R., Hille K. A 30-min physical education program improves students’ executive attention. Mind Brain Educ. 2009;3:235–242
- Bowers M.T., Green B.C., Hemme F., Chalip L. Assessing the Relationship between Youth Sport Participation Settings and Creativity in Adulthood. Res. J. 2014;26:314–327
- Scudder MR, Lambourne K, Drollette ES, Herrmann SD, Washburn RA, Donnelly JE, Hillman CH. Aerobic capacity and cognitive control in elementary school-age children. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2014; 46(5):1025-35
- Verburgh L., Scherder E.J.A., van Lange P.A.M., Oosterlaan J. The key to success in elite athletes? Explicit and implicit motor learning in youth elite and non-elite soccer players. Sports Sci. 2016;34:1782–1790