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Surviving the Assessment Period: How Exercise Can Boost the Brain

If you are a Year 8 Parent, you may have been quizzed by your son earlier in the term about your own levels of participation in physical activity. I assure you this was not a planned “guilt trip” by your son’s HPE teacher. The purpose of the task was to identify the barriers we face in our lives to looking after our health. It is true that we are well aware that regular physical activity can have a myriad of positive effects on our health, yet it is often the first thing that is compromised when we are time-poor. It is this time of year that I am reminded of the importance of physical activity not only on the body, but across the emotional and mental dimensions of health as well.

We are at that time of the term where students are busy completing assessment, and as parents (and teachers) “their stresses” can become “our stresses”. In the days and weeks ahead students will feel time poor. Not surprising, for many of our young men, physical recreation time may be the first to go to be replaced with long periods of time spent at a desk trying to complete that assignment that is due tomorrow. (Yes, we’ve all been there!) In the short term the physical effects will not be noticeable, however mentally and emotionally, we will see stress rear it’s ugly head with frequent tiredness, short tempers and melt-downs potentially on the agenda. Don’t be fooled, some stress is helpful in keeping students focussed leading into an exam or to complete an assignment in what may seem like a short time-frame. However, excess stress needs to managed. This is where physical activity can play a significant role.

There has been a wave of studies that explore the links between physical exercise and improved memory, concentration, mood, sleep, even creativity. It is widely recognised that physical exercise results in better quality sleep. It is also known to release endorphins and can lead to improved mood. In addition to this, Ben Martynoga, a neuroscience writer stated the following about exercise’s links to memory and concentration in a 2016 article published in The Guardian:

“The part of the brain that responds strongly to aerobic style exercise is the hippocampus. Well-controlled experiments in children, adults and the elderly show that this brain structure grows as people get fitter. Since the hippocampus is at the core of the brain’s learning and memory systems, this finding partly explains the memory-boosting effects of improved cardiovascular fitness. Besides making memories stickier, exercise can help you focus and stay on task. The best scientific evidence comes from testing school children, but the same most likely applies to us all. Interspersing lessons with 20-minute bouts of aerobics-style exercise improved the attention spans of Dutch school pupils. Meanwhile, a large randomised controlled trial in the US looked at the effects of daily after-school sports classes over a school year. The children, of course, got fitter. Less predictably, their executive control improved. They became more adept at ignoring distractions, multitasking, and holding and manipulating information in their minds.”

So, during this assessment period I would encourage all students to integrate some form of regular physical exercise into their study regime. In addition to this, students should try to maintain a healthy diet full of fresh fruit, vegies, cereals, nuts and protein which have all be shown to be good for the brain and blood sugar levels. Stay hydrated and avoid high sugar snack foods, as these will cause students to crash when the sugar high wears off.
Good luck!

Tim Walker, Head of Health and Physical Education
walkert@atc.qld.edu.au