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Stress less: why exercise could help you ace that exam

When you’re furiously cramming for an exam, it can feel like you’ve entered a vortex.

Head deep in the books, it’s often a struggle to find time for a social life, let alone worry about lacing up your runners.

‘When people get stressed they believe they’ve got less time available so they’ll cut out the things they think are less important,’ says Associate Professor Steve Fraser, of Deakin’s Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition. ‘So they’ll stop exercising, but if anything, exercise is one of the things that can help them study better.’

If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by pre-exam stress, or unable to focus after hours of reading, exercise is one of the simplest things you can do to stay mentally sharp.

‘Exercise helps release dopamine, which is like your motivation molecule to stay focused, more attentive,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says. ‘You also get endorphins, like a runner’s high… and things like serotonin, which is your feel-good hormone.’

So do you have to sweat buckets, or would a brisk walk do?

What type of exercise is best?

Assoc. Prof. Fraser says any aerobic activity is a good place to start – even a five to 10 minute walk may help soothe anxious feelings. If you can go a bit longer, even better.

‘Probably 15 to 30 minutes of exercise would be useful, it would be a good study break as well,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says.

If relaxation is key, try yoga or deep breathing exercises.

‘Those sorts of exercises, as long as they’re not intense, can lower your heart rate and make you feel calmer,’ he says. ‘But you’d balance that with a little bit of aerobic exercise.’

Opt for exercise that leaves you feeling recharged and refreshed, rather than in need of a nanna nap.

Why is exercise helpful for study?

‘The main thing is the blood flow to the brain helps oxygenate the brain, and it helps relieve tension,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says.

‘When you’re stressed you release cortisol. Exercise can help counter that and help you return yourself to a normal physiological level.’

A study in Germany a few years ago took a group of electrical engineering students through a 20-week running program to see whether it made a difference to their stress levels on exam day, compared to the control group. While both groups reported higher stress levels than usual in the lead-up, the fitter group coped better on exam day.

Assoc. Prof. Fraser says there’s a reason that successful people, including politicians, keep up a regular fitness routine.

‘Even your top executives find time to exercise because they know that when they’re focusing on their job, they’re more efficient. It’s finding that balance.’

'When you’re stressed you release cortisol. Exercise can help counter that and help you return yourself to a normal physiological level.'

Assoc. Prof. Steve Fraser,
Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

What is the best time to get moving?

Australian government guidelines recommend adults do at least 30 minutes of moderate to intensive physical activity on most or all days of the week.

But Assoc. Prof. Fraser says around exam time, aim for at least 15 minutes on those days.

It will feel hard to take time away from study to exercise but often there’s times of day when you wouldn’t study very well anyway, so pick those times,’ he says.

Avoid exercising too close to bedtime, as it may keep you awake. However exercising earlier in the day will likely boost the quality of your sleep.

‘We know that exercise helps you sleep better, and there is a strong correlation between the hours of sleep and exam performance or academic grades in general,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says.

‘So if you’re not getting your seven to eight hours sleep, then you’re probably compromising your capacity to perform well in your exam, or overall.’

But what if you don’t feel like exercising?

To boost your willpower, arrange to meet a friend for that walk, swim, pilates or dance class. And find something you actually enjoy.

‘If you hate running, then don’t run – do something else,’ Assoc. Prof. Fraser says.

At the very least, get up every 15 or 20 minutes from your desk, even if it’s just to grab a glass of water or some some fresh air.

What to do on exam day

When D-Day arrives, you’ll want to feel calm and focused.

A quick walk beforehand can help put you at ease and get the blood flowing.

All going to plan, you’ll finish the exam with a pep in your step. Either way, some light exercise afterwards will help you burn off any nervous energy, and return to a calmer state.

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Assoc. Prof. Steve Fraser
Assoc. Prof. Steve Fraser

Associate Professor of Exercise Physiology, Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition, Deakin University

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