All-too-often, we work ourselves into a time-crunch when we balance multiple priorities.
When I was at university, there was a popular dilemma around campus: studies, sleep, and social life. You can have two of them at any given time. But only two. That’s because it’s humanly impossible to have all three and be good at any of them.
Now, we’re going to throw a fourth ball in your juggling act: exercise.
You’re probably well aware of the physical and psychological benefits of regular exercise (learn how exercise works out the brain). But how the heck are you going to balance studies, sleep, social life, and exercise? Even if it is just 45 minutes of exercise per day, that’s time you could spend sleeping, preparing for a huge upcoming exam, or making out with your crush.
Well, we’re here to tell you that rather than thinking of exercise as being something else you need to prioritize, you should see it as something that (1) can help you succeed at all of your other priorities and (2) doesn’t require any additional time that you probably don’t have.
How is this possible? By killing two birds with one stone!
To help you do this, Brainscape has put together some fantastic tips on how to exercise WHILE studying (and study while exercising) so that you can maintain good health, energy, grades, and that sexy body!
Are you ready? This article will cover the following topics:
- The health benefits of exercising
- 4 Tactics to help you study while you exercise
- Motivation is the secret sauce
1. The health benefits of exercising
Exercise boosts your powers of cognition, memory, and mental energy.
We understand that you place a higher priority on studying and getting a good night’s rest during exam time.
“I’ll get back into my running / I’ll get back into the gym when exams are over and I have time to breathe,” you tell yourself. That’s perfectly understandable.
But you are short-changing yourself in ways you may not know yet (but will after reading this). Exercise offers a potent array of whole-body benefits that make you more lethal in many aspects of your life, the exam hall included.
Most importantly to you as a student, however: exercise boosts your powers of cognition, memory, and mental energy.
And all of those are pretty important assets to have during study time.
Let’s take a closer look at the four major health benefits of exercising, all of which are crucially important to students trying to juggle the demands of their studies and social life.
Benefit 1. Exercise boosts cognition and memory
Exercise increases your heart rate, which pumps more oxygen and glucose (brain food) to the brain. It also encourages the release of hormones that create an environment conducive to the growth of neurons. AND exercise promotes brain plasticity by stimulating the growth of new connections between brain cells in many important regions of the brain.
What the heck does all of that mean? It means that exercise improves your cognitive abilities, which manifests as improved focus, attention span, and memory.
In other words: exercise helps you learn better.
[Read also: The best brain foods to eat before an exam.]
Benefit 2. Exercise improves health and immune functioning
Regular exercise is the framework of healthy living. It lowers blood pressure, helps control body weight, improves cardiovascular health, and protects against inflammation and infection. Just like a healthy diet, exercise can contribute to good whole-body health and, therefore, to a strong and effective immune system.
Regular exercise may contribute even more directly to building immunity by promoting good circulation, which allows the white blood cells, antibodies, and other militia of the immune system to move through the body more efficiently.
Benefit 3. Exercise helps you deal with stress
Stress is the ninja that slips silently under the radar of your immune system to deliver painful punches to your body’s organs and systems. Your doctor may tell you that your bloodwork is perfectly normal but then why do you feel like you’ve been run over by an 18-wheeler truck?
Stress, my friend. Stress. It is literally a silent killer. Like a ninja.
One of the best ways to alleviate stress—one that avoids the risk of Xanax addiction or expensive therapist bills—is exercise. Regular exercise floods your brain with feel-good endorphins, brain chemicals that have a similar effect to cannabis. In fact, they’re called endocannabinoids (endogenously produced cannabinoids) and they make you feel, like, totally awesome man.
[Brainscape has also put together a guide on how to use exam stress to actually improve performance & prevent burnout. We recommend reading it!]
Benefit 4. Exercise improves quality of life
Fundamentally, our bodies were built to move. And while the modern lifestyle involves a whole lot of sitting around on laptops or in lectures, devoting time daily to exercise can give you the health, energy, and positive mentality you need to lead your best life.
(By the way, if you're really into fitness and are considering becoming a certified personal trainer, check out our ultimate study guide to the NASM.)
4 Tactics to help you exercise while studying
The key to finding the time to exercise while studying are opportunism and preparation. Then, with a little bit of creativity, maintaining a lifestyle that is physically and cognitively active will soon become second nature.
Now that we’ve convinced you that exercise deserves priority in your busy student life, let’s dive into the four ways you can squeeze physical activity into your study routine. Or even to squeeze some studying into your exercise regime.
Tactic 1. Study between exercise sets
For every set or circuit you do, take a breather for 2-5 minutes and do some quick studying. These short sessions are perfect for reviewing the information you’ve already studied or for onboarding atomic-sized portions of new knowledge, such as you would find in flashcards.
This requires you to (1) plan your workouts to have multiple sets, where the breaks in between sets are dedicated to studying, and (2) have your study material within quick and easy reach.
Flashcards for effective studying while exercising
Digital flashcards are incredibly effective tools for quick, convenient studying, making them the perfect complement to your exercise. Brainscape’s adaptive learning platform makes it super easy to build your own flashcards or find flashcards that other users have made. And because it’s all 100% digital and online, all you need to worry about packing in your gym bag is your phone. Forget heavy textbooks and sheaves of study notes.
Brainscape also delivers its study sessions in short 10-flashcard rounds, so you can whip out your phone between sets, study 10 cards, work out, study, rinse and repeat. By the end of an hour, you would have done a potent 15 to 20 minutes’ of study (and burned off that cheeseburger you pounded back last night).
Engaging active recall while exercising
You engage in passive studying when you simply read your textbook or study notes. This alone is ineffective for remembering information well enough to recall it days, even weeks later during an exam.
What you should be doing after reviewing your notes is practicing active recall. Actively recalling information is when you dig into your memory and retrieve what you stored there earlier (by reading, highlighting, and making study notes) without any assistance.
So, rather than reading your textbook on the treadmill, it’s far more effective to review the material you’ve already studied by actively recalling it. Once again Brainscape can help with this. Our flashcards are designed to stoke your memory and have you recall information from scratch (rather than just recognizing the answer from among multiple choices), which creates deeper memory traces.
This is a lot more effective (and time-conservative) for memorization, even when you find yourself a little distracted by all the hot booty around you in the gym.
Tactic 2. Exercise between study rounds
If studying in the gym or on the treadmill doesn’t appeal (and it won’t appeal to everyone), why not turn this tactic on its head? Instead of a long workout session peppered with study breaks, try a long study session peppered by exercise breaks. Research shows that exercise enhances memory and knowledge retention, so being active will actually help you!
A 2018 study published in the Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition examined three groups of students, who watched a 50-minute online lecture, Afterwards, they were tested for understanding and memory. The first group took three five-minute breaks during the lecture, in which they did some light calisthenic exercises. The second group used their breaks to play video games, and the third group had no breaks at all.
The group who exercised performed the best on their tests.
This is just one of many studies that support the benefits of exercising while studying.
So, after a period of studying (you get to decide how long that is), haul yourself up and get active. Go for a quick walk, do some yoga poses, run through some weights, or even run like hell on the treadmill. Do that for a few minutes or even 15 minutes to give your brain a break from new information. You’ll be more primed for study afterward.
Tactic 3. Study DURING your exercises
Not to be confused with studying between exercise sets, studying during your exercise literally involves learning while you’re on the move. This could be reading or running through flashcards on the treadmill or stationary bike ... or listening to lectures while doing weights ... or engaging in active recall while doing yoga. In other words: killing two birds with one stone.
Not all students can get away with this, especially those for whom multitasking is an out-of-reach skill. But if you’re adept at engaging your brain while performing repetitive activities (like exercise), this is definitely a great time-saver!
Here are some awesome ways to study while exercising:
- Record your voice reading, or better yet, teaching your subject to an imaginary novice. Then listen to that audio while you power through your workout. Make it fun by dropping the odd joke or motivation, like: “The atomic structure of hydrogen—hey, on your feet! Push up that resistance! C’mon now, you can do it!”
- Find some lectures, Youtube videos, or podcasts to listen to, or watch, on your device while you’re on the treadmill, elliptical, stationary bike, etc. Sure, these may be mostly passive studying and not as effective as active recall, but at least they're better than nothing.
- Use the Brainscape audio series, which is available for hands-free studying for the multistate bar exam (with more courses and subjects to follow). This program fires off one small question at a time, giving you time to answer (out loud or in your head), thereby engaging your powers of active recall.
- Use Brainscape flashcards to learn and/or review your study material. Our adaptive learning platform has an extensive library of flashcards made by both Brainscape users and our partner subject-matter experts. Alternatively, you can make your own!
The fact that you can simply open your device’s browser and pick up where you left off makes it super easy and convenient to drop into and out of studying throughout your workout. And it only involves one tap to get to the next flashcard (rather than, say, typing an answer), so it's easy to use while on a cardio machine.
- If you prefer not to use any devices while you study, use your brain! Exercising in all its forms is a great opportunity for reflection (provided you don’t have music blasting in the background, which can be distracting). You can use this time to freely recall what you’ve studied previously. (See the next section.)
Pro Tip: Replace your study chair with a fitness ball. Sitting on a fitness ball requires balance so it will (1) activate and engage your core muscles and (2) keep your posture upright. You’ll literally be strengthening your body by doing no more than sitting while you study!
Tactic 4. Use the Feynman technique
The final point we mentioned—engaging in the free recall—leads us rather neatly to this next trick for studying without any devices, notes, or books in front of you.
The Feynman Technique.
Developed by Nobel laureate Richard Feynman, this technique is based on the premise that the best way to test and practice your understanding of a concept is to teach it to an imaginary 6th Grader. This forces you to reduce the topic to its basic, conceptual framework so that a child can understand it. If you can’t do that, then you are clearly missing a piece of the puzzle yourself and need to bridge that knowledge gap before moving on.
This is a great technique to engage in on long walks or hikes. Simply pretend you’re explaining the topic or subject to your little cousin or nephew and recite the lesson out loud. You can also do it in your head if you’re subconscious about looking like a crazy person.
Then, when you get back home, review your notes and see if you missed anything. Also make sure you identify and address those areas in which your knowledge is a little shaky.
3. Motivation is the secret sauce
Even if you only squeeze in 10 to 15 minutes of studying during gym time, that’s 15 to 20 minutes more than you would have done before.
The mere fact that you’re reading this is a testament to the fact that you’re motivated to exercise while studying, somehow. You might just not know how yet (well, NOW you should since you’ve made it through this article).
[Check out our complete guide to getting motivated when you want to procrastinate.]
But before we unleash you upon your life with the tools and techniques to juggle your studies, social life, sleep, and exercise, we want to remind you to be realistic with your expectations. Multitasking is great for getting many things done at once, but because your attention is divided you’re probably not going to do an exceptional job at either.
The more intense your exercise, the less able you’ll feel to focus on studying, and vice versa. This is why mild to moderate, repetitive exercises like cardio are best for studying. The point we’re trying to make is: don’t expect things to go super smoothly, especially at first while you develop a study-while-exercising routine.
What’s most important is that, even if you only squeeze in 10 to 15 minutes of studying during gym time, that’s 10 to 15 minutes more than you would have done before. It is possible to have both a regular workout and a well-established study routine during exam time. Just keep your expectations reasonable and stay motivated!
Check out Brainscape’s article on optimizing your brain health for effective studying to learn about the other lifestyle changes you can make to improve your study habits and grades!
Armstrong, B. (2018, December 26). How exercise affects your brain. Scientific American. https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-exercise-affects-your-brain/
Fenesi, B., Lucibello, K., Kim, J. A., & Heisz, J. J. (2018). Sweat so you don’t forget: Exercise breaks during a university lecture increase on-task attention and learning. Journal of Applied Research in Memory and Cognition, 7(2), 261-269. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.jarmac.2018.01.012
Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Erickson, K. I., Basak, C., Chaddock, L., Kim, J. S., ... & Wójcicki, T. R. (2010). Plasticity of brain networks in a randomized intervention trial of exercise training in older adults. Frontiers in Aging Neuroscience, 2, 32. https://dx.doi.org/10.3389%2Ffnagi.2010.00032