by Rachel Zavala
The lure of shackling yourself to a library chair during finals is strong—there are dozens of pages to write and multiple exams to study for. Forty-five minutes at the gym is simply unrealistic, and those precious minutes spent away from your textbooks could result in a B-.
This panicked thought is pervasive among graduate students trying to balance demanding schedules, but flawed.
“Besides the obvious short-term benefits of exercise, in the long-run general fitness improves our ability to withstand the stresses of the day,” says Paul Leavis, PhD, associate professor of physiology at Tufts University School of Medicine and senior scientist at Boston Biomedical Research Institute.
Aerobic exercise and stress
Physiologically, the benefits reaped from at least 30 minutes of vigorous aerobic exercise, such as running, biking, or training on the elliptical machine, can last for up to 12 hours, according to Dr. Leavis.
“When you exercise, you are changing your blood chemistry to make nutrients more available to the brain…providing fats and glucose, and giving the brain preferential access to glucose,” he says.
Upon generating greater cardiac output with exercise, the amount of blood pumping to the brain greatly increases, providing oxygen and essential nutrient to the brain—nutrients needed to produce fruitful study sessions.
After exercise stops, blood pressure decreases and remains depressed for up to 12 hours, helping to control the temporary increase in blood pressure that finals period may cause.
Meanwhile, multiple hormonal changes occur during exercise that helps alleviate stress, Dr. Leavis adds.
The well-noted increase in cortisol during exercise, the stress hormone produced by the adrenal gland, makes glucose available to the brain. Simultaneously a rise in epinephrine secretion during exercise, a hormone also produced by the adrenal gland, increases your awareness, therefore improving your ability to concentrate while studying.
“There is legitimate evidence that the aerobic component of exercise produces the largest changes…but also, after three, four, or five hours of studying, it just simply feels good to get up and move tired muscles,” he says.
Exercise and Anxiety
Recent debate in the medical community regarding the correlation between exercise and its anxiety reducing effects has garnered massive media attention; however, the “ethereal” evidence suggesting that exercise is a mood elevator is not as firm, but it is not to say it is without benefit, Dr. Leavis says.
Professor Miriam Nelson, PhD., Director of the John Hancock Center Research Center on Physical Activity, Nutrition, and Obesity Prevention, emphasizes that all forms of exercise produce beneficial effects.
“There is a mind calming that comes from being active, whether it is biking, running, walking, or tai chi, its all great,” she says.
According to Vanessa Moris, a Forrest Yoga instructor at Back Bay Yoga, the relaxing effects produced by some forms of meditative exercise aim to “reach [the] mind through the body.”
“If you are more relaxed, you tend to retain more information, your mind is clearer and you are able to make better choices….graduate students have to make a lot of choices with time management.”
Dr. Nelson says that one week of scaled back activity for Friedman School students should not impact them negatively in the future, suggesting that students accumulate physical activity throughout the day by getting off the T a few stops away from campus and walking.
“Great ideas tend to emerge when you are exercising. It’s hard to have creative, inventive ideas when you are sitting at a desk with 1,000 things going through your head…exercising creates a space in your mind,” she says.