The following are random tid bits I have found helpful over the past 8 (!!!) years of post-secondary education exam studying.
One of my favourite health hacks! Sauna bathing is well known for its cardiovascular benefits (I have made posts about this on Instagram if interested) and its ability to help us detoxify harmful hormonal modulators and heavy metals. Cardiovascular health is an important factor in brain health and performance; we need to have good circulation to the brain for optimal function. Because of its ability to improve blood flow and decrease inflammation, sauna bathing has started to be studied for its role in brain health. In a recent Finnish study, over 2000 healthy men who used a sauna 2-3 times per week had a 22% lower risk of dementia and those who used the sauna 4-7 times per week had a 66% reduction in dementia!
Now a few prospective studies are usually not usually enough evidence for me to implement something into my routine. However, if you have ever used the sauna (20ish minutes) then taken a cold shower (3 mins), you know the feeling of clarity and alertness that follows. It’s a great way to enter an exam or a long study session. If you haven’t tried this before I urge you to start incorporating it into your routine. The cold shower isn’t nice at first, but start out lukewarm and work your way to colder temperatures. The contrast increases your blood flow and activates heat shock proteins which stimulate your mitochondria- increasing energy production from your cells. If you’re interested in the mechanism behind this I can provide more information for you!
Great news! Naps can actually be helpful for cognitive function and improving focus. The length of the nap is somewhat up for debate- one study found 10-20 minutes optimal when compared to 5- or 30-min naps. While another study found that if trying to memorize large amount of information, a 60 min nap is best. In this study, they also noted that a 90 min nap (a full sleep cycle) was best at improving creativity and participants were less drowsy when waking. But you have to keep in mind your sleep schedule. I mentioned earlier how sleep is so vital for our cognitive function. If you take a 90min nap at 4pm, it may be tricky to get a good night’s sleep at 10pm. Plus, you still need to spend some time actually studying, unfortunately!
We’ve all heard that it’s important to take breaks while studying, so in 2011 a university professor put this advice to the test. He used 84 subjects to determine if taking breaks throughout study periods actually made a difference when compared to those who worked for a prolonged period of time.
The following is taken right from the study: “The control group was asked to work non-stop for the 50-minute duration. The switch group and the non-switch group memorized four numbers before the work period began, and both groups were told to inform the research team if any of these digits appeared on their computer screen during the 50-minute duration. The numbers appeared twice on the computer screens of those in the switch group, but they never appeared on the screens of those in the non-switch group. The digit-ignored group was also shown the same set of numbers, but told to simply disregard them if they appeared on their screens.”
All groups, except the switch group, had a decrease in their performance over the 50 minutes. The researchers hypothesized that this group stayed on task because they were given small breaks where they performed a different task. Even with the same amount of overall time, the group that had an extra task to focus on ended up more productive, because of this break in repetitiveness.
A critical aspect of taking a break however, is taking a break correctly. Most students take a break by pulling out their phone, going on Instagram, checking emails, snapchatting etc. When we engage with those on social media, we do not receive the same hormone release that we would get with a real human interaction- the increase in oxytocin and serotonin. Instead, social media tends to increase our dopamine. This can negatively affect studying by distracting our brains from studying and not allowing them to relax fully. The length of a break should be proportional to the time you have spent studying and is also individualized per person. Some people can focus for an hour then take a break, some need a break every 30 mins. Good break ideas include: walking around, going to the washroom, washing your face, doing some jumping jacks, stretch, pet an animal, or have a conversation with a study partner (time this so you don’t get distracted).
Most of us have heard that meditation helps with increasing memory and brain health. There are numerous studies that display evidence for this. So, I won’t give you more studies here. I am just going to remind you that meditation is a key aspect of enhancing performance and if you are looking to increase your test score, medication is a must! Meditation has demonstrated an increase in the hippocampus in the human brain, and increases the ability to recall information when compared to those who don’t meditate. When we increase our awareness and learn to be mindful of what we are doing, we both increase the information we are taking in (while studying) and can focus on the task at hand (writing the test). Meditation also trains our bodies to be able to breath and relax in times of high stress (like an exam).
I hope that at least one of these tips was helpful, if you are in exam season -keep going, you can do it! And one last tip- a little gratitude appreciating the opportunity we have for education also helps shift perspective.
I hope you've enjoyed the Optimizing Brain Function Series! Please let me know if you have any questions.