How Physical Fitness Improves Your Focus & Learning
April 20th, 2012 by Dr. Bruce Johnson
The life of a college student can be extremely stressful. Students likely have a number of stressors, including academic, financial, social, career, and family-related factors. It is possible to combat the potentially negative consequences of stress through development of your physical fitness, which in turn can improve your school work and performance. A recent poll asked educators to consider: Does physical activity improve student focus?, and 89 percent replied yes, “physical activity allows students to relieve stress and aggression, thereby bringing better focus to the classroom.” Let’s discover the benefits students can experience from exercise and how to develop a realistic plan that anyone can follow.
There are many definitions of the term “physical fitness,” however; in general it refers to an overall state of well-being and specific actions taken (such as physical activities). The connection is that physical activities help produce a healthy state or contribute towards peak physical fitness. Being engaged in physical activities produces a chemical reaction, a hormone called an endorphin. Endorphins are “secreted by your pituitary gland inside your brain and they serve a number of physiological functions and resemble opiates and produce feelings of well-being and happiness.” Physical activities that lead to physical fitness will likely improve mental well-being and may include mood, anxiety, and self-esteem.
In the article, Mental Health Benefits from Resistance Training by Amenda Ramirez and Len Kravitz, Ph.D., the list of benefits include: “improved memory, may lessen depression, much less chronic fatigue, and improved quality of sleep.” In a blog Exercise Squared: The Benefits of Exercise and Nature, Eva M. Selhub, M.D. noted that “exercise or physical activity is one of your best stress buffers, therapy for focus, mood and cognition enhancing, and overall improved physical and mental health.” All of these benefits serve students well and extend beyond a general feeling of well-being as physical fitness has a direct impact on the functions of the brain, and in turn, learning. It will also keep you healthier, which means fewer visits to doctors and pharmacies.
Improved Brain Functioning
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, physical exercise “helps to keep your brain sharp and boosts the production of new brain cells and also improves your focus and concentration.” John J. Ratey, M.D., a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, explains that improved brain functioning is “an important function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses.” Ratey believes that this is an essential skill needed for “high performance in intellectually demanding jobs.” This is relevant to students as school work also requires strong intellectual skills.
Physical activities result in improved brain cognition, which “refers to the brain’s processing ability to obtain knowledge through thought, experience and the senses.” The brain is a control center that “manages all of the tasks in a person’s life, such as writing an article, doing a research project, preparing for class and organizing a trip.” Improved cognitive functions have been determined to be one of the many benefits of resistance training (Anmderson-Hanley, Nimon and Westen, 2010) as well as cardiovascular exercise (Colcombe and Framer, 2003). As physical activity is incorporated into a daily routine, the outcome will include improved thought processing, memory, and memory-related tasks. This can provide students with the extra boost needed to perform well in their classes. The challenge is often getting started or even knowing how to begin.
Developing a Plan of Action
For students that are not physically active they may believe that starting an exercise routine is too overwhelming, requires too much time, or they simply do not have enough energy because of their demanding schedule. Physical activity does not have to be equated with a complicated exercise program; however, small steps can be taken at first to get used to being active. I’ve discovered through working out that I often experience more energy after getting started with my routine, rather than waiting until I feel that I have enough energy to begin. While there are numerous trends and fads in the fitness industry, the following is a list of simple steps that can be taken to develop an action plan – so that the benefits of physical activity and fitness can be experienced right away. Be sure to consult with a physician before starting any demanding routine.
1. Create a routine and habit
Start by incorporating physical activities as part of a daily schedule. The Mayo Clinic recommends that “as a general goal, aim for at least 30 minutes of physical activity every day;” and “if you want to lose weight or meet specific fitness goals, you may need to exercise more.” John J. Ratey, M.D., provides a recommendation that would be a good way to start, by “going for a short, intense run at lunchtime ahead of an important brain-storming session at work.” In other words, consider the time available each day and establish a 30 minute routine for some form of activity.
Starting a daily routine leads to the development of a habit over time. To develop a new habit there are three steps to follow. The first is to choose one habit or decide on one form of activity to try. Next, stay committed to the process and don’t give up if the first attempts seem difficult (in which case you should consult a nurse practitioner or physician). The last step is to evaluate the progress made. It is likely that over time there will be a change noticed in well-being and possibly class performance, as self-esteem, concentration, and focus improves.
2. Do what you enjoy while exercising
In the article, Starting an Exercise Program and Sticking With It by Cherilyn Hultquist, Ph.D., an important point is made about beginning an exercise program. Hultquist recommends choosing “something that is feasible, accessible, and enjoyable.” As noted in Be Active in Things You Enjoy: “exercise does not have to occur only at a gym. A walk is the easiest form of exercise and it can be very enjoyable – walking along a path or walking the dog.” Studies have shown that “participants who exercise outdoors feel revitalized, have increased energy levels, and feel more satisfied,” while decreasing “their levels of tension and depression.” This is a reminder that little steps can be taken at first to begin to incorporate activity. To help develop it as a routine and habit, find ways to make it an enjoyable process.
3. Establish rewards for your progress
A plan of action that is focused on improved well-being, which leads to improved brain functioning, is a significant achievement but any action plan would not be complete without a reward system. In an article published by the American College of Sports Medicine that addressed skills needed for development of self-esteem, it was suggested to “create rewards and positive incentives to keep you on track with your body image program,” by developing “daily, weekly and monthly incentives that recognize the effort you are putting into your personal wellness program.” What students often discover is that they feel prepared to address a busy work day and make better use of their time when they have taken care of their physical well-being. Reward the hard work and time invested and it will help to reinforce a positive habit.
Time to Get Started
Becoming physically fit is not a one-time event but the culmination of time and maintaining a routine. Physical activity does not have to involve a complex plan of action to begin with because the goal is to make enough changes so that well-being and performance are improved. As students incorporate activity into their daily plan, they will likely find their focus and concentration is improved – which can reduce anxiety and frustration that is possible from having many demands of their time. In addition to enhanced brain functioning, students are likely to discover that they are more self-motivated, self-determined, self-confident, and self-disciplined as a result of managing their physical fitness.
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