A Surprising Study Hack – Physical Exercise [With Case Studies]

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It’s an ultra-competitive world. In academic tests at national/ international level, if you don’t finish in top few percentiles, sometimes under 1%, you’re unlikely to achieve your goal of getting admission to your dream college or that coveted fellowship.

In pursuit of such tough goals, diligent students go all out to get an edge on any front – study material, tutors, diet, energy boosters, and so on.

And even Physical Exercise (PE)!

You read it right. Physical exercise. Physical exercise of a certain kind, though. And it’ll help you even if you’ve a modest goal of just improving in your most challenging subjects.

There is strong, incontrovertible evidence – scientific research as well as case studies – which underscores the positive correlation of PE with improvement in not just academic performance but also behaviour, concentration, and, of course, fitness.

What experts say?

John J. Ratey, associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and co-author of book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (the book delves into how exercise affects brain), says that exercise is arguably the best way to grow brain cells, and it helps in multiple ways:

  • Makes you fitter (that’s obvious)
  • Improves learning and academic performance
  • Improves behaviour: makes you more attentive, less impulsive, and sharper, and improves concentration
  • Makes you alert, less sleepy. In other words, helps you focus on studies for long hours or even when you’re tired

And it can also help you combat anxiety before an exam (Preparation phase > Physical exercise).

Dr. Ratey, in his book Spark, cites the study by California Department of Education (CDE). The 2001 study found that fit kids scored twice as well on academic tests as their unfit peers. Among 279,000 ninth graders in California, for instance, following results were observed:

CDE repeated the study in 2002, this time factoring in socio-economic status. As expected, students from higher-income families performed better on academic tests, but the results also showed that within students from lower-income families, fitter students performed better than unfit.

In a review of several published scientific articles that examines correlation between physical activity and academic performance, this research brief by University of Texas, Austin says:

Physical activity can have both immediate and long-term benefits on academic performance. Almost immediately after engaging in physical activity, children are better able to concentrate on classroom tasks, which can enhance learning.

In this study, students were divided into two groups. The experimental group was subjected to 12 minutes of aerobic exercise (running) and the control group was shown a 12-minute video. Immediately after the two activities, the students were given a test to evaluate how focused (or selective attention) they were on their task. The group which indulged in sedentary activity (watching 12-minute video) didn’t show improvement in selective attention, whereas the other group (12-minute running) showed significant improvement. Significant. Besides, the improvement was found to be even higher for children from lower-income families.

Improved selective attention or, so to say, focus (as a result of my cycling regime) was probably the reason why I had only one silly mistake in those 27 hours. And it means so much: you work so hard to get those extra marks, but often squander a chunk by making silly mistakes. It’s like filling a water tank but not paying attention to a leak at the bottom.

Another study, based on data from 4,755 children, led by Dr Josephine Booth, Dundee University and Prof John Reilly, University of Strathclyde found that grades increased in direct correlation with the amount of physical exercise undertaken. The researchers tracked academic performance and level of physical activity of these students for several years, and measured their performances in English, Math, and Science at the age of 11, 13, and 16.

Case study: Naperville Central High School

This school near Chicago offered an optional PE class to students who struggled in reading and math just before their most difficult class.

Students who signed up for PE just before their reading comprehension class, went ahead of those who opted out of PE by half a year. And in pre-algebra, improvement was starker: students who took PE improved 2-4 times more than their non-PE peers on standardized tests.

“I like gym in the morning. How… like it freshens me up, like I don’t doze off a lot. So, I focus more on to the teacher, more on lessons, more on everything,” says one of the girls, a participant in the program.

Subsequently, the program was improved upon (Learning Readiness Physical Education (LRPE) in its new avatar), yielding even more dramatic results.

According to data collected from 2005-10, on average, LRPE students surged ahead of their non-LRPE peers by 56% in a semester in reading. And by 93% in math according to data collected from 2006-11.

Paul Zientarski, the architect of this program, says that other schools in Illinois (who adopted LRPE) too have reported improvement in fitness, academic performance, attendance, and behaviour.

Case study: City Park Collegiate, Saskatoon

The PE intervention made by Allison Cameron, the teacher at this alternative high school in Saskatoon, Canada, is even more remarkable because the students here were the ones who couldn’t make elsewhere. Her grade-eight class had high number of students with ADHD (half, in fact), students with defiance and other behavioural disorders, students who had fallen to substance abuse, and so on.

Bernice, for example, had fallen to drugs and alcohol before he was 10.

And Dustin…

He was exceptionally good in swearing and defying his teachers; that’s why he was in this school.

She tried the usual teaching, disciplining methods from September to February, but they didn’t have much of an impact.

Then, she found the answer in Spark.

She put treadmills in the classroom, and goaded her students to use them.

The four-month program had a remarkable effect on the students. They, on an average, gained one full grade in reading, writing, and math.

“We never never dreamed that we would have the amount of success that we had last year. It was incredible. Everybody improved,” says Allison Cameron.

Bernice improved his reading by 20% and comprehension by 400% by the end of the program. Yes, 400%.

Dustin could control his anger better, could concentrate more, and felt happier at the end of the program. More importantly, he was less defiant now and had built a rapport with the teacher; remember, he used to swear at the teacher earlier. His improvement, though, wasn’t limited to his behaviour alone. He improved his reading by 25%, math by 25%, and comprehension by 30%.

Students who couldn’t concentrate for more than 10 minutes before the program, focused harder and longer after the program.

And the only change in this period, compared to Sep-Feb, was the treadmill. It’s hard to believe that such a small, innocuous intervention played such a profound role in these student’s development.

Watch this project in action (duration: 15 minutes):

Case Study: Schools in Titusville, Pennsylvania

Dr. Ratey, in his book Spark, mentions how Tim McCord improved academic performance and behaviour of students in schools in the town of Titusville. With median income of $25,000 and 16% people living below poverty line, this town, unlike Naperville, isn’t a wealthy suburb by any stretch. But the PE program worked here too.

The standardized test scores of Titusville’s students increased from below the state average to 17% above it in reading and 18% above it in math. And not a single fist fight was reported among 550 junior high kids since the beginning of the program in 2000.

How does physical exercise improve learning?

Dr. Ratey explains how exercise works at three levels to improve learning:

  • It optimizes mind-set to improve alertness, attention, and motivation,
  • It prepares and encourages nerve cells to bind to one another, which is the fundamental process behind absorbing new information, and
  • It spurs the development of new nerve cells in the hippocampus, part of the brain associated with memory and spatial navigation

At a macro level, this can also be understood through the difference in brain activity induced by PE.

One group of children after walking on treadmills for 20 minutes at moderate pace and another group after sitting for a similar length of time, took test questions in reading, spelling, and arithmetic. The brain image below shows the average neural activity of the two groups during the test. Color blue represents lower neural activity whereas red represents higher activity.

What type of exercise is more impactful?

In both the schools, Naperville and Saskatoon, what seems to have worked is sustained aerobic activity that gets your heart rate up – 145-185 beats per minute for 45 minutes in Naperville and 134 in Saskatoon.

Scientific studies, too, find vigorous aerobic exercises to have greater impact:

A recent review of 39 studies on the mental and intellectual benefits associated with school-based physical activity programs found that the greatest effects were seen when children engaged in aerobic physical activity, like jogging in place, rather than resistance activities, like push-ups or sit-ups.

Several studies show that vigorous physical activities, like running and playing tag, may have larger effects on academic performance than lower-intensity activities.

Over one school year, children who played active video games like Dance, Dance, Revolution during recess experienced more improvements in both physical fitness and academic performance in math than students who participated in traditional recess.

And in this study by the University of British Columbia, the researchers found that regular aerobic activity that activates heart and sweat glands seems to increase the size of hippocampus, the component of brain which plays an important role in verbal memory and learning. However, resistance training, balance, and muscle-toning exercises did not have the same results.

This doesn’t mean you trade study with physical activity for a better academic performance

Physical activity, of course, can’t replace the hours you need to put in school and at home, studying.

What it can do is make you more efficient in learning. Make you energetic. Make you focus even when you’re tired. Make you focus better and for long hours. And make you less likely to doze off.

A big advantage, no doubt!

Guard against pseudo-exercise?

“I go to the gym for 50 minutes, four times a week. Without doubt, I exercise a lot.”

That’s great. At least you’re moving your butt off.

But, is that real exercise from the perspective of getting exercise-related benefits? Does your exercise qualify as sustained aerobic activity for at least 20-30 minutes, which ups your heart beat significantly?

Or, during those 50 minutes, you hang around in between waiting for your turn on some equipment or activity. If that’s the case, you’re probably pseudo-exercising.

“I don’t have enough time for exercise”

CEOs of Fortune 500 companies work insane hours, easily upwards of 70 hours per week, and yet most of them take out time to exercise. And at that level, they don’t waste time on activities that don’t aid them in some way.

They exercise because it makes them more productive, which more than compensates for the time spent exercising.

And that’s precisely the message is from the improved performance of students who took PE classes at Naperville and Saskatoon.

Paul Zientarski puts this succinctly:

People are dropping PE because test scores are failing. That’s not the approach. That’s the exact opposite of what you need to do to be successful.


An overwhelming majority of studies associate regular PE with improvement in attention and memory, and hence academic performance.

Its benefits aren’t limited to pure academics, though. You can also improve your concentration, have a better mood, and, of course, improve your fitness.

So, if you overindulge in video games, TV, online chatting, and other sedentary activities, then replace at least some of them with PE, preferably aerobic, sweat-inducing activities such as jogging, cycling, stair-climbing, rope-skipping, dancing, basketball, tennis, and squash. Do it for at least 30 minutes, five days a week.

Though nothing beats regular PE, taking it up (if you aren’t regular at it) closer to exams too can be helpful, as even single session has been found to have positive impact on test scores, improved concentration, and more efficient transfer of information from short- to long-term memory.

But, what most do? They stop exercising closer to exams in order to squeeze out more time for studies, which isn’t a good idea.

And you don’t need any fancy infrastructure to get going. You just need to perk your heart rate up, and even a skipping rope can do that for you.

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