How regular exercise benefits performance and well-being in students


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Perhaps the key to boosting a student’s performance is not adding more study hours to their already packed schedule, but to incorporate consistent exercise in their lifestyle.

Students these days do not have it easy. On top of attending regular lessons and revising for exams, many would have committed to an extra-curriculum or two, and perhaps have additional tuition to cope with the competitive education system. Older students may experience the pressure of getting good grades to secure their future and grapple with the perils of young adulthood such as peer pressure, body image issues and establishing one’s independence. It is no wonder that many suffer from anxiety and burnout from all these pressures.

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Regular exercise can be an important and impactful change in a student’s lifestyles. Not only does it boost brain power, but it can also help them to manage stressors in life and stay healthy, further boosting their emotional well-being and stamina to persevere and be productive.

► READ: Importance of physical activity for your child's development


Here’s how exercise can help

  • Brain development

Exercise could help to improve brain development which can boost cognitive abilities. One study found that 12 weeks of aerobic exercise at moderate to high-intensity levels seems to have a positive effect on levels of Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF) BNDF is a protein that promotes the growth of nerve cells, and thus plays a crucial role in brain development. Even though this study lacked female participants, it was conducted in adolescents, whose brains are still developing, demonstrating the potential benefit of exercise for students. Dr John Ratey, an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that exercise improves learning in three ways: Enhancing your mindset to improve alertness, attention, and motivation; preparing and stimulating nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the foundation for transfer and development of new information; and promoting the growth of new nerve cells. Essentially, exercise prepares the brain for learning and makes retaining information easier.

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  • Stress-coping mechanism

It is important to note that not all stress is bad. There is positive stress, otherwise known as eustress that is associated with improved performance and productivity. Distress is negative stress that is associated with performance decline and negative health consequences such as obesity, diabetes, and depression. Although the exact physiological mechanisms to explain how exercise improves “distress” has not been determined, there is some evidence suggesting that being physically active improves the way the body handles stress through changes in hormone responses and affects neurotransmitters that affect mood and behaviours. A study among college-aged women showed that those who were allowed to take an exercise break (20 minutes of low-intensity cycling) from studying were calmer and this may due to the “time out” hypothesis i.e. a breather from daily stressors and worries.

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  • Better sleep

Aerobic exercise leads to a better quality of sleep, which is crucial to a student’s academic performance. Sleep helps in retaining more information from studying as it is moved from short term to long term during rapid eye movement sleep (REM). Inadequate sleep leads to decreased alertness and attention, which could result in students missing out on important information in class. Higher brain functions such as language, logical reasoning and creativity are impaired as well, affecting a student’s ability during a test or exam, or while doing an assignment.

► READ: How does sleep impact learning?


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So how can a student include exercise in their school routine?

Here are some tips by Active Health Coach, Mr Munir:

  • Money is often a huge concern for many students and having a gym membership may not be ideal. Equip yourself with the knowledge of bodyweight training as these exercises can be done anywhere. Check out our previous article to learn 5 easy bodyweight exercises! Once you are ready to take your workout to the next level, there are plenty of cheap options such as a resistance band, skipping rope, and exercise ball.
  • Have a schedule. Just like how you plan your timetable for your modules and self-study, it is worth including specific slots for exercise so that it becomes one of your priorities. Furthermore, there are plenty of exercise routines out there that can be done in the comforts of your own home, so you don’t have to waste time prepping to go outside or travel. The best time to schedule exercise will be in the morning before doing anything else so that you will not have any excuse to procrastinate. Remember, the best workout is the one you can stick to!
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  • Make small adjustments in your lifestyle to incorporate more movements. For example, choose to walk up the stairs instead of taking elevators. Walk or bike to school if possible, instead of taking a bus. For a study break, take a walk instead of reaching for a snack.
  • Take part in sporting activities and groups in school. Not only will it be convenient as the location will be in school, it provides good motivation as you will be exercising along with other people.

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Remember that even though academic performance is important, it is not everything and health should be a priority as well. There is no use in achieving good grades if you are not physically and mentally healthy to reap the benefits of your efforts.

► WATCH: Easy yet effective exercises for youth

If you are looking for guided fitness workouts that are suitable for 18 years old and above, click here to find out more!

For parents looking to engage your children in physical activity as early as possible, check out Active Parents or ActiveSG Academies and Clubs for a wide variety of resources and programmes on physical activity and child development!

► READ: More articles and tips to Move Better

Topics: Physical Activity, Move Better