“Have regular hours for work and play; make each day both useful and pleasant, and prove that you understand the worth of time by employing it well.”
‘Little Women’, Louisa May Alcott
The pressures imposed by public exams, coursework deadlines and school curriculums are always intense. But today, due to the outbreak of COVID-19, students must also navigate the new and uncertain landscape of home education, without the face to face support of teachers and the structure of a school timetable.
The government recently announced the closure of all schools across the UK, impacting millions of students across the country. While school closures will help in keeping children healthy and slowing the spread of the virus, they have meant that families up and down the country are having to adjust to an entirely different daily routine – “the new normal”.
While the temptation might be to draw up rigid and extensive lesson timetables, the reality is that the key to success during this period is not the hours spent sitting in front of books, but in following Marmee’s in “Little Women” advice and making time for both ‘work and play’.
My own experience, along with much scientific research has shown the benefits that exercise can have on the brain, particularly when taken alongside studying. With the weather getting better by the day I explain below why movement should play an essential role in studying at home.
Exercise changes the brain in ways that protect memory and thinking skills. In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise (the kind that gets your heart and sweat glands pumping), appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning.
- Mental health
These are uncertain times and the constant media coverage of the unfolding COVID-19 pandemic, combined with increased pressure to complete school work under challenging conditions is a recipe for heightened stress levels. Exercise induces a decrease in stress hormones, which in turn improves mood and sleep, while also helping to reduce anxiety. Studies in adults indicate that 30 minutes of aerobic exercise reduces muscle tension, which lasts for up to 4 hours after the exercise, meaning that post exercise you will feel more relaxed and able to focus on the task in hand.
Exercise is also associated with improved self-esteem and greater confidence. Identifying and completing a particular fitness challenge, whether it be a 5km run or 20 star jumps in the garden, gives you the fulfilment which comes from setting goals and achieving them. By focusing on what your body is capable of rather than what it isn’t builds a greater sense of self confidence, something which can be applied to an academic environment too.
At school our days are planned out for us. With the help of a rigorous timetable, we know exactly what we are meant to be doing and when. Routine can be an anchor. No matter what is going on in the world, we are comforted if we know that we will be doing Maths and French in the morning, to be followed by sport in the afternoon. At home this can be hard to replicate. Carving out 30 minutes a day to do some movement creates a routine. Coping with unpredictable periods of time can feel more doable when we have a little structure in place to look to. It also breaks up the day, meaning that when you go back to your books, you will feel refreshed and energised.
- Opportunity to learn differently
Who said that you can’t learn while getting some exercise? Whether on a walk, jog or doing star jumps in your kitchen, podcasts and audiobooks are a great way to distract your mind from the physical movement. While revising for my GCSEs, A levels and finals, I found that walking with an audiobook of my set texts was a great way to lose myself in the books. Download the Audible app and you will be able to access thousands of books for a fraction of the price of buying them instore. There are also some brilliant podcasts out there. Player FM has a list of podcasts aimed at students studying for GCSEs while Audiopi is a fantastic educational resource created by teachers, examiners and leading academics.
You cannot work all day, every day. Nor should you. Revision has to be about quality, as well as quantity. Aiysha Malik, a psychologist with the World Health Organization, recently reminded us that “we can feel mentally better if we are as physically well as possible”.