It’s an ultra-competitive world. In academic tests at national/ international level, if you don’t finish in top few percentiles, sometimes under 1%, you’re unlikely to achieve your goal of getting admission to your dream college or that coveted fellowship.
In pursuit of such tough goals, diligent students go all out to get an edge on any front – study material, tutors, diet, energy boosters, and so on.
And even Physical Exercise (PE)!
You read it right. Physical exercise. Physical exercise of a certain kind, though. And it’ll help you even if you’ve a modest goal of just improving in your most challenging subjects.
There is strong, incontrovertible evidence – scientific research as well as case studies – which underscores the positive correlation of PE with improvement in not just academic performance but also behaviour, concentration, and, of course, fitness.
Here’s how I stumbled upon this relatively less appreciated, though important, factor that can boost one’s academic performance.
How I serendipitously discovered benefits of physical exercise?
Several years back, when I was preparing for Civil Services Exam (CSE), all alone, I used to get bored, jaded by evening after a long study-day.
One July evening, to kill boredom, I took out my bicycle and went out. No spark. No instinct. I just saw the bicycle gathering rust & dust in one corner of the house, and took it out.
Thirty minutes later, I was cycling on an unpaved road, parallel to a river, in sparse forest on the outskirts of the city. Since the weather and the surrounding were pleasant, I cycled for almost an hour.
I liked the experience, and followed it up the next few days as well. And it didn’t stop thereafter.
I had discovered a way to break my monotonous routine. The daily evening jaunt used to leave me drenched in sweat, and after a shower and 15-minute Tom & Jerry show on TV, I used to resume my study. Few days into this routine, I noticed that I was getting less (than when I wasn’t cycling) fatigued by dinner time and I could focus on studies even when tired, but I didn’t think much beyond.
Fast forward few months. I went through a gruelling exam comprising of nine papers (each, 3 hours long), spread over 16 days. As the days and papers passed, I knew I was doing well, but I never sat down and analysed my performance in detail till the last day. On Nov 17, day after the last paper, I finally cross-checked my solutions and answers in detail and saw two distinct patterns for the first time in several years of test-taking:
I committed only one silly mistake over those 27 hours, and on three days I was in the examination hall for six hours (two sessions of three hours each with an hour-long break in between), something extremely fatiguing.
I had an unusually high success rate with surprise, first-time, difficult questions. These are the ones which differentiate you from the pack. (As a matter of strategy, I attempted such questions after finishing the easier ones, and hence they invariably came up toward the end of 3-hour duration, when I was at my worst, mentally.)
It wasn’t luck, for sure. I could see an indirect impact of my cycling regimen on my performance: I focused better during the exam hours, which was the main reason why I had only one silly mistake in 27 hours, and I was fresher and sharper even after 2.5 gruelling hours, which is so important in tackling unforeseen challenges that invariably crop up in challenging exams.
Though not planned for boosting my performance, my exercise regimen certainly played an important role in my finishing in top 0.0017% in arguably the most selective exam (sometimes, even those who finish in top 0.01% retake the test) in the world. This is what Wikipedia says about CSE:
The examination is the toughest examination in India, with more than 900,000 applicants and a success rate of 0.1%-0.3%, one of the lowest in the world.
To be honest, I wasn’t aware of any correlation between physical exercise and academic performance then. In fact, till several years later. But I discovered something that worked well for me, and I continued to follow it, with similar result.
In my high-school days, in sharp contrast, I used to slog for hours starting few weeks before the exam day. No entertainment. No physical exercise. I never understood what impact this routine was having on my academic performance, especially exams, then.
But after CSE I did. And since then I’ve even coaxed few of my friends to start exercising few weeks before their GRE/ GMAT tests, with most of them reporting improved concentration (which is so important in avoiding those silly mistakes) and a better performance (compared to their previous attempts).
What experts say?
John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (the book delves into how exercise affects brain), says that exercise is arguably the best way to grow brain cells, and it helps in multiple ways:
Makes you fitter (that’s obvious)
Improves learning and academic performance
Improves behaviour: makes you more attentive, less impulsive, and sharper, and improves concentration
Makes you alert, less sleepy. In other words, helps you focus on studies for long hours or even when you’re tired
And it can also help you combat anxiety before an exam (Preparation phase > Physical exercise).
Dr. Ratey, in his book Spark, cites the study by California Department of Education (CDE). The 2001 study found that fit kids scored twice as well on academic tests as their unfit peers. Among 279,000 ninth graders in California, for instance, following results were observed:
CDE repeated the study in 2002, this time factoring in socio-economic status. As expected, students from higher-income families performed better on academic tests, but the results also showed that within students from lower-income families, fitter students performed better than unfit.
In a review of several published scientific articles that examines correlation between physical activity and academic performance, this research brief by University of Texas, Austin says:
Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning [emphasis added].
In this study, students were divided into two groups. The experimental group was subjected to 12 minutes of aerobic exercise (running) and the control group was shown a 12-minute video. Immediately after the two activities, the students were given a test to evaluate how focused (or selective attention) they were on their task. The group which indulged in sedentary activity (watching 12-minute video) didn’t show improvement in selective attention, whereas the other group (12-minute running) showed significant improvement. Significant. Besides, the improvement was found to be even higher for children from lower-income families.
Improved selective attention or, so to say, focus (as a result of my cycling regime) was probably the reason why I had only one silly mistake in those 27 hours. And it means so much: you work so hard to get those extra marks, but often squander a chunk by making silly mistakes. It’s like filling a water tank but not paying attention to a leak at the bottom.
Another study, based on data from 4,755 children, led by Dr Josephine Booth, Dundee University and Prof John Reilly, University of Strathclyde found that grades increased in direct correlation with the amount of physical exercise undertaken. The researchers tracked academic performance and level of physical activity of these students for several years, and measured their performances in English, Math, and Science at the age of 11, 13, and 16.
Case study: Naperville Central High School
This school near Chicago offered an optional PE class to students who struggled in reading and math just before their most difficult class.
Students who signed up for PE just before their reading comprehension class, went ahead of those who opted out of PE by half a year. And in pre-algebra, improvement was starker: students who took PE improved 2-4 times more than their non-PE peers on standardized tests.
“I like gym in the morning. How… like it freshens me up, like I don’t doze off a lot. So, I focus more on to the teacher, more on lessons, more on everything,” says one of the girls, a participant in the program.
Watch this program in action (duration: over 8 minutes):
Subsequently, the program was improved upon (Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE) in its new avatar), yielding even more dramatic results.
Paul Zientarski, the architect of this program, says that other schools in Illinois (who adopted LRPE) too have reported improvement in fitness, academic performance, attendance, and behaviour.
Case study: City Park Collegiate, Saskatoon
The PE intervention made by Allison Cameron, the teacher at this alternative high school in Saskatoon, Canada, is even more remarkable because the students here were the ones who couldn’t make elsewhere. Her grade-eight class had high number of students with ADHD (half, in fact), students with defiance and other behavioural disorders, students who had fallen to substance abuse, and so on.
Bernice, for example, had fallen to drugs and alcohol before he was 10.
He was exceptionally good in swearing and defying his teachers; that’s why he was in this school.
She tried the usual teaching, disciplining methods from September to February, but they didn’t have much of an impact.
Then, she found the answer in Spark.
She put treadmills in the classroom, and goaded her students to use them.
The four-month program had a remarkable effect on the students. They, on an average, gained one full grade in reading, writing, and math.
“We never never dreamed that we would have the amount of success that we had last year. It was incredible. Everybody improved,” says Allison Cameron.
Bernice improved his reading by 20% and comprehension by 400% by the end of the program. Yes, 400%.
Dustin could control his anger better, could concentrate more, and felt happier at the end of the program. More importantly, he was less defiant now and had built a rapport with the teacher; remember, he used to swear at the teacher earlier. His improvement, though, wasn’t limited to his behaviour alone. He improved his reading by 25%, math by 25%, and comprehension by 30%.
Students who couldn’t concentrate for more than 10 minutes before the program, focused harder and longer after the program.
And the only change in this period, compared to Sep-Feb, was the treadmill. It’s hard to believe that such a small, innocuous intervention played such a profound role in these student’s development.
Watch this project in action (duration: 15 minutes):
Case Study: Schools in Titusville, Pennsylvania
Dr. Ratey, in his book Spark, mentions how Tim McCord improved academic performance and behaviour of students in schools in the town of Titusville. With median income of $25,000 and 16% people living below poverty line, this town, unlike Naperville, isn’t a wealthy suburb by any stretch. But the PE program worked here too.
The standardized test scores of Titusville’s students increased from below the state average to 17% above it in reading and 18% above it in math. And not a single fist fight was reported among 550 junior high kids since the beginning of the program in 2000.
How does physical exercise improve learning?
Dr. Ratey explains how exercise works at three levels to improve learning:
It optimizes mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation,
It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the fundamental process behind absorbing new information, and
It spurs the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation
At a macro level, this can also be understood through the difference in brain activity induced by PE.
One group of children after walking on treadmills for 20 minutes at moderate pace and another group after sitting for a similar length of time, took test questions in reading, spelling, and arithmetic. The brain image below shows the average neural activity of the two groups during the test. Color blue represents lower neural activity whereas red represents higher activity.
In both the schools, Naperville and Saskatoon, what seems to have worked is sustained aerobic activity that gets your heart rate up – 145-185 beats per minute for 45 minutes in Naperville and 134 in Saskatoon.
Scientific studies, too, find vigorous aerobic exercises to have greater impact:
A recent review of 39 studies on the mental and intellectual benefits associated with school-based physical activity programs found that the greatest effects were seen when children engaged in aerobic physical activity, like jogging in place, rather than resistance activities, like push-ups or sit-ups.
Several studies show that vigorous physical activities, like running and playing tag, may have larger effects on academic performance than lower-intensity activities.
Over one school year, children who played active video games like Dance, Dance, Revolution during recess experienced more improvements in both physical fitness and academic performance in math than students who participated in traditional recess.
And in this study by the University of British Columbia, the researchers found that regular aerobic activity that activates heart and sweat glands seems to increase the size of hippocampus, the component of brain which plays an important role in verbal memory and learning. However, resistance training, balance, and muscle-toning exercises did not have the same results.
This doesn’t mean you trade study with physical activity for a better academic performance
Physical activity, of course, can’t replace the hours you need to put in school and at home, studying.
What it can do is make you more efficient in learning. Make you energetic. Make you focus even when you’re tired. Make you focus better and for long hours. And make you less likely to doze off.
A big advantage, no doubt!
Guard against pseudo-exercise?
That’s great. At least you’re moving your butt off.
But, is that real exercise from the perspective of getting exercise-related benefits? Does your exercise qualify as sustained aerobic activity for at least 20-30 minutes, which ups your heart beat significantly?
Or, during those 50 minutes, you hang around in between waiting for your turn on some equipment or activity. If that’s the case, you’re probably pseudo-exercising.
“I don’t have enough time for exercise”
CEOs of Fortune 500 companies work insane hours, easily upwards of 70 hours per week, and yet most of them take out time to exercise. And at that level, they don’t waste time on activities that don’t aid them in some way.
They exercise because it makes them more productive, which more than compensates for the time spent exercising.
During CSE prep, those hours cycling more than paid for the time I put out of studies. And if I’ve to do it all over again, I’ll keep my hours the same way.
And that’s precisely the message is from the improved performance of students who took PE classes at Naperville and Saskatoon.
Paul Zientarski puts this succinctly:
People are dropping PE because test scores are failing. That’s not the approach. That’s the exact opposite of what you need to do to be successful.
An overwhelming majority of studies associate regular PE with improvement in attention and memory, and hence academic performance.
Its benefits aren’t limited to pure academics, though. You can also improve your concentration, have a better mood, and, of course, improve your fitness.
So, if you overindulge in video games, TV, online chatting, and other sedentary activities, then replace at least some of them with PE, preferably aerobic, sweat-inducing activities such as jogging, cycling, stair-climbing, rope-skipping, dancing, basketball, tennis, and squash. Do it for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.
Though nothing beats regular PE, taking it up (if you aren’t regular at it) closer to exams too can be helpful, as even single session has been found to have positive impact on test scores, improved concentration, and more efficient transfer of information from short- to long-term memory.
But, what most do? They stop exercising closer to exams in order to squeeze out more time for studies, which isn’t a good idea.
And you don’t need any fancy infrastructure to get going. You just need to perk your heart rate up, and even a skipping rope can do that for you.
Question: Have you experienced any positive influence – academic or non-academic – of physical exercise?