If you want better grades, start exercising more often

Not happy with your grades from last term? Science has a solution for you — exercise.

Physical activity increases circulation, oxygen intake and endorphin release which all positively impact our brain's efficiency. Dr. Peter Graf, a psychology professor at UBC who studies memory, helped explain how students can use the relationship between exercise and your brain to improve your grades.

According to Graf, there are two main ways in which physical activity improves our ability to take in new information — it helps us conserve our attentional resources and it takes advantage of the powerful effects of contextual learning.

Attentional resources are sort of like a cognitive currency that the brain has to spend to do various mental tasks. These resources are limited, which means you can only do a few things at once. Learning and retaining information are expensive tasks and require a lot of attentional resources, but so does stress, anxiety and worrying. These negative emotions and thinking patterns drain your resource bank, and impede your ability to concentrate. Physical exercise can plug that drain.

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“If you go and weightlift, or you go running, you actually disengage from [anxiety]. If you're there and you're pushing weight to the max, you're no longer thinking, ‘I need to study for the exam, I need to do this, I need to do that,’” said Graf. “You actually approach it again with a new mindset when you get back to the task.”

Physical exercise can stop you from wasting unnecessary brain power by disengaging your mind from stress and worry. But can you get the same effect by simply distracting yourself with funny YouTube videos? Possibly, but there is another critical way in which physical activity boosts your ability to learn — that of contextual effect. “Everything we learn is connected in our mind to the context in which we learned it,” said Graf.

Whenever you take in a new piece of information, your mind automatically connects it with your current context and mental state, your environment, and the way in which you took in the information. So if you decide to cram an exam's worth of material in one night, chances are it won't work because all of the information is being stored in the same context and as a result, your brain will have trouble recalling and differentiating the information.

“In order for us to be good at remembering, we need a variety of different contexts,” said Graf.

He illustrated the importance of context with an analogy. “Context is like what happens if you have a hook for hanging clothes. You can put one jacket on there, [and then] a second jacket no problem. But by the time you have 20 on there, obviously they don't stay on and maybe even the hook falls out. In the same way, if we put too much onto the same context that we have for remembering, we lose it. The context is no longer useful [and] it is no longer distinctive.”

Physical activity creates a new context, creating a new hook to hang information on — just scrolling through Facebook won't make that happen.

According to Graf, even simple things like walking outside, breathing in fresh air or seeing some friends can produce context variety and improve your learning. You really don't need a gym or a pool to be physically active — you might just need to be a bit creative.

“I live on the 25th floor of a high rise building. If it's a really rainy or winter day, I go run up and down the stairs in the stairway [since] there's nobody there. I could be naked if I wanted to. If I go up and down four times, I've done half the Grouse Grind. It's a solid, solid workout.”