How Focused Exercise Helps to Improve Study Efforts

There is no question that regular exercise has tremendous benefits. Long walks or visits to the gym keep you healthy, energized and in good shape.

But how to integrate exercise in your daily study routine while preparing for an exam? Exercise during exam preparation can indirectly improve your study efforts by helping you relax, focus and avoiding fatigue. Before you start to learn a short relaxing and focus meditation helps you to get ready, during your study small desk exercises and breaks with walks recharge your brain and after your study, a more extensive exercise prepares you for a good night sleep.

When I took my first exams I always thought I needed to conserve my energy so I can use it all for my brain. I found out that this is not true and recent studies confirmed it. A well-focused exercise is a very effective study aid. Let’s take a look at what to do, why it helps you to learn better and when to include it into your study process to avoid pain and be more relaxed.

How exercise supports study and memory

Many people (and so did I) thought that if you want to train your brain you should do brain exercises like crossword puzzles and sudoku. Research confirmed that this helps you to get better at the specific exercises you practiced but is not an overall means to improve you learning or memorizing ability. So what about physical exercise?

During my research of what I can do to improve my brain power through exercise, I found dozens of studies that tried to find out how exercise improves your brain. Though there were different findings and even some contradictions all researches  had the following results in common:

  • Regular exercise improves memory and cognitive functions
  • Exercise before study increases the blood flow in the brain which provides energy
  • Exercise prevents dementia
  • Exercise releases protein that helps to form new connections in regions of the brain responsible for memory
  • Exercise increases focus and attention
  • Exercise reduces anxiety and stress
  • For more brain power the exercise needs to be continuous and regular 

I could not really find a definitive answer on the intensity of the workout. Some studies suggested aerobics or a full intensive cardio. Others suggested a mild exercise during your study (though I personally think that this is just impractical for most study subjects). This article from Sandra Aamodt and Sandy Wang explains how exercise and brainpower are linked. One important fact is that regular workouts improve what science call executive functions. These are responsible for adjusting behavior to the situation at hand. Working memory, response, and processing speed are improved and increase the ability to focus on the task in front of you. According to S.Aamond, the exercise does not need to be a sophisticated workout program but can be as simple as taking a 30-60 minutes walk. All studies I found agree that a weekly total exercise time of 120-150 minutes is the most healthy thing to do not only for your brain but for your life.

Bottom line is as expected that exercise helps short and long term, and no exercise does not only not help but it hurts. But exercise is not only important to prepare for a study session but is also crucial to keep going and relax afterward. Here is the routine I developed after a lot of trial and error to combine an effective study with a healthy portion of workouts. 

Exercise before study

Develop a routine

For me, the exercise before the study (or work) is already included in my morning schedule. After getting up early (6 in the morning) I do a 7-minute workout (Plenty of free Apps for this) before breakfast. I found this most helpful simply because it gets my metabolism going and most important it is doable. A friend of mine swears on running for 30 minutes or more in the morning (I tried) but honestly, I just couldn’t get myself to do this constantly. But 7 minutes is just short enough to commit to and according to studies long enough to be helpful to jumpstart my day. I use an App for this because it tells me what to do, I just follow the orders and be done with it – Before I tried some exercise on my own but I was not disciplined enough so I   “accidentally skipped” parts of the training.

This fast cardio wakeup morning routine is probably not for everyone. My wife does a short meditation exercise to get ready for the day. I wrote a full article about how meditation support your study here if you want to learn more.

Exercise during study

I read an article that suggested to exercise like riding a bike in a gym while you are going through your study material. I tried that once and absolutely advise against it and here is why: First and foremost, the focus here is the exercise and not the study. In the gym listening to an audiobook about a topic to support your learning might be fine but just reading a book or watching a course on a gym bike is not the right way to focus on the material. Reading or watching something in a noisy fitness center full of distractions without taking notes of any kind is a waste of time. Read my article about taking effective notes to find out why. 

Eye relaxing exercises

One of my (and probably your) biggest problems during long study hours especially in front of a computer is that my eyes start to hurt, at the beginning this was so bad that I needed to stop. I always blamed it on my progressive glasses until I found a couple of little exercises for my eyes that really helped (In the order they were most effective for me)

  1. Shift your focus once in a while – From all the tips I found this in combination with taking a break is the best one (often described as the 20-20-20 rule). Every 20 minutes when you are having a break focus on something at least 20 feet away (like the corner of the room)  for at least 20 seconds. I always take this a bit further to be most helpful by going outside, standing on my balcony and watching the mountains by taking in a deep breath of fresh air.
  2. Rub your eyes – This I assume most of us do even without reading about it. Just close your eyes and rub them gently in a circular way.
  3. Close your eyes and apply heat with your palms – Rub your (clean) hands together until they heat up and place them over your closed eyes.
  4. Real eye exercises – This is my least favorite, blinking, rolling or tracing a virtual eight. I found these to make me feel a bit dizzy, especially when I am standing. But that might just be me so try it out.

Small desk exercises

The best desk exercise of all is, of course, leaving your desk but we will get to that in the next paragraph. For me as a programmer and computer worker relaxing my hands and fingers always comes first. So here are some little tricks to give you hands a well deserved break:

  • Shake your hands – This is really working well. Shake your hands like they are wet and you can fell the tension falling off. (20 seconds)
  • Make a fist – You can add this one to the shaking exercise. Make a fist and bend your wrist inside. Hold it for 5 seconds. Shake your hands and repeat this process three of times. (20 seconds)
  • Pick some apples – Now I usually extend the exercise to move my full arms. I pretend to pick some apples from a tree by reaching up, grabbing two apples and pulling them down. (20 seconds)

The second thing I really have problems with after sitting at a desk for a long time even when taking regular breaks is my neck and my back. This already got a lot better after replacing the “Chair I found from the previous house owner” by a professional office chair. But after long hours like with the hands even the best chair cannot save the day. So now I additionally rely on the following small exercises easy my neck and back pain. If you have ever been to China you will know these already because on most flights there is an exercise video before the landing procedure.

  • Stretching – Sit upright, put your right arm in the air and lean towards the left, then switch to the left arm and lean towards the right. Repeat a couple of times (30 seconds work best for me)
  • Head circling – Though I need to admit that this also sometimes make me a little dizzy but it is such a relaxing exercise so I do it anyway. Again, sit upright, look down (then better close your eyes) and circle your head to the right, then up, to the left and repeat that circle for a few times (count to 30)
  • Touch the floor – The third one I borrowed from the Chinese flight video is also very simple. Sit upright and put both hands on your knees. Your feet need to be flat on the floor apart from each other. Now slowly bend down by gliding along between your legs. Touch the floor by putting your flat hands on the ground. Stay there for about 30 seconds and get back up. Repeat this a couple of times.

These little refresher exercises do not take more than 5 minutes. This works well if it is a rainy day or you just can’t get outside. If I can (and most of the time I do) I go outside for 5 minutes.

Take 5 minutes walking breaks

I take a break around every 25 minutes, go outside for 5 minutes and do the hand exercises while trying to focus on a point far away to relax my eyes. This tiny walk beats all desk exercise because it also takes my mind off the current task and gives my brain a break. But what is the best way to track time? There are tons of time management systems to help you with this. I tried many and most of them are just too complex. And then I came across the Pomodoro technique from Francesco Cirillo which is incredibly simple and effective. Here are the simple steps – you can read more details on Francesco’s website above. To do this you need a timer of some kind (The technique is called Pomodoro – the Italian word for tomato – beacuse francesco used a tomato-shaped kitchen timer for this)

  • Write down a task (better have a complete task list ready for the day)
  • Set the timer to 25 minutes. Work on the first task until the timer rings
  • If something comes up during your focus time end it to the end of the list
  • Make a checkmark on a piece of paper (you worked “1 fully concentrated tomato” on your task)
  • Take a 5-minute break (Walk, do the exercises I described above
  • Restart the timer
  • Every 4 Pomodoros take 20-30 minutes break 

This simple way of tracking time is very effective to keep your focus on the task at hand and delay any interruptions by putting them at the end of the list.  There are plenty of free Apps (free and paid) out there to help you with keeping the time but a real kitchen timer including (which cannot be easily paused or reset like an app) is my way to go. Besides, the ticking sound supports my focus and the mechanical ringing sound brings up the mood – because it used to mean lunch is ready (Here is the Amazon link). 

After your study

I am not really a gym person so what I do after a long study day (and hopefully 16-20 Pomodoros) is take a long(er) walk. Getting fresh air and relaxing my eyes for at least 30 minutes – usually, I try to make it an hour. This exercise is meant to relax so don’t take more learning with you like some podcast or your audio study notes (read my article about study notes if you don’t know what I mean). I have a “feel good album” I use for this or sometimes just enjoy the sound of nature. 

Related questions

Useful mental exercises that actually work: Besides keeping your body in shape which supports your brain enormously as we have seen above there are a couple of simple things you can do to stay sharp and improve your daily life. Mental exercises work much better when they are related to a useful outcome rather that just for the purpose of training your brain :

  • Calculate in your head – For your daily calculations don’t use pen and paper or a calculator. I always practice my math in the supermarket. Try to add up all the prices of things while putting them into your shopping cart and see how close you come to the checkout. This is not only helpful for your math abilities but also save you from the embarrassing moment of not having enough cash.
  • Call people by their names – When you meet someone new greet him or her by reusing their name right after the introduction: “Nice to meet you, Tom, what do you do for a living Tom”. Then try to remember someone you know already by that name and find similarities to better be able to recall the new person’s name. Make this a challenge when you go to a party to remember everyone’s name.
  • Learn a language – This obvious advice seems pretty overwhelming, doesn’t it? I am currently brushing up my Italian. I am not talking about hours of textbooks or online courses, just a simple 10-15 minute exercise every day. An amazing tool for this is the free website Duolingo. They include small lessons, repetitions, badges and other motivational incentives that keep you going. Go and check it out.
  • Play a game – Playing a challenging game helps you to stay sharp in a fun way. Learn chess (for free on chess.com) or go and buy a puzzle. Invite some friends over for an evening of trivial pursuit, Rummikub or even Scrabble.

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