Everyone wants to improve themselves. To have good grades, to sleep enough, to have an active lifestyle and maybe even a non-ramen-based diet. What they don’t realize is that all these birds can be hit with a single stone. Or, well, multiple smaller stones fired from the same cannon.
The notion of exercise being beneficial for concentration and memory has been around for a while, with Dutch schools implementing twenty-minute bouts of exercise between their lessons, and even the Hungarian government introducing mandatory physical education lessons five days a week in 2012. Many of us abide by this system, but we don’t know the exact reasoning behind it.
According to Harvard medical studies, moderate intensity exercise is directly associated with an increase in volume of the brain. In particular, exercise aids in the growth of the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory. Don’t worry if you’re ridiculously unfit–most of us have been there–because you don’t have to go all out. While intense, regular training sessions encompassing cardio as well as muscle and strength training are great, the science says that even something as small as regular walking, or ten minutes of so-called ‘playful coordination exercises’, like bouncing a tennis ball, can help improve attention span and memory.
Dr. Max Cynader, a Canadian neuroscientist with over fifty years of practical intelligence, calls this process the enhancing of the brain’s plasticity. In his 2013 TED talk, Dr. Cynader debunks the myth that we have a set number of brain cells at birth, and we are unable to make any more. He says that we are all making new and new brain cells each and every day, and we can double, or even triple the amount of brain cells we make by simply doing physical exercise.
Dr. Cynader tested this theory in the Brain Research Center of the University of British Columbia–which he happened to be the founder of–on rats. His experiment was quite straightforward, in that he made one group of rats live in an environment without too much movement, and put another group of rats in a physically stimulating environment. From his research, it is clear to see that the rats doing more exercise gained significantly more new brain cells than the rats who exercised less. New brain cells give us the ability to make more memories, have better emotional responses, and improve our learning and attention spans.
Aside from exercise, what is also important in improved memory is deep sleep. Deep sleep, or NREM (non-rapid eye movement) sleep is the most important stage of sleep for memory consolidation, or “making memories stick”. It is actually quite harmful to the memory consolidation process if one’s deep sleep is interrupted. You also wake up feeling more tired, disoriented and groggy if you are pulled out of deep sleep. To make sure that your memories become long-term ones, it is advisable to use a sleep calculator to determine what time to wake up. I highly recommend sleep-calculator.com, which also has a multitude of interesting tips and facts about sleep. If you count your sleep cycles, and wake up at the end of a cycle, you can sleep less hours, and be more well-rested.
Long story short, you don’t have to sleep more, you have to sleep smarter, and you don’t have to burst your lungs in the gym, you just have to move and stimulate your body consistently, and, theoretically, better memory and higher grades should follow. Of course, I am not responsible if that doesn’t end up happening, because you also have to put effort into your studies to see a real improvement.
By Sara Raba