Ever heard of academic self-care? Once the last school bell rings, we shouldn’t stop learning. Exercise will make it easier! #neuroplasticity #executivefunctioning #ADD #ADHD #Menopause #alzheimers #physicalactivity #runner #academicselfcare #depression #anxiety #goals #work

Ever heard of academic self-care? Once the last school bell rings, we shouldn’t stop learning. Exercise will make it easier!

Exercise and self-care go hand-in-hand. What would happen if you saw exercise as a powerful self-care tool instead of a drudgery you must check off your already too-long to-do list? We’ll explore the mental, academic, physical, and spiritual aspects of exercise during the month of June.

Ever heard of academic self-care? Once the last school bell rings, we shouldn’t stop learning. Exercise will make it easier! #neuroplasticity #executivefunctioning #ADD #ADHD #Menopause #alzheimers #physicalactivity #runner #academicselfcare #depression #anxiety #goals #work

Perry Mason, on Repeat

“I think I’ve watched too many Perry Mason episodes,” I mumbled to myself as I sat in my recliner on the third day after my surgery. Three days without exercise or much movement had reduced me to talking to myself. I didn’t have the energy to call someone, and reading a book wore me out.

But after watching my ninth Perry Mason episode, when I closed my eyes, I saw the world in black and white. When I glanced out the window, I expected to see the rounded shape of cars from the sixties passing by on my street.

I tried writing because I wanted to get blog posts scheduled in advance so I could spend time with family over the summer. But I had trouble stringing words together. My emotions seemed all over the place. A month of limited activity and three days with no exercise whatsoever had really messed with my brain. Too many episodes of Perry Mason may have contributed to this.

My brain fog and inability to concentrate prompted me to look into the role of physical exercise and academic self-care. How exactly does movement enhance or create learning?

First Stop, Executive Functioning

I joined band my freshman year in high school because I had a hand-me-down clarinet my mom used in high school. With no previous experience playing the clarinet, nor a real grasp on reading music, I can’t believe the band director let me join. Mr. Schwisow had patience, though, and despite a band full of newbies like me, we produced tolerable-sounding music.

As a band director, Mr. Schwisow had a host of responsibilities. He needed to know the capabilities of each band member and understand the parts each would play to create a harmonious whole. I struggled with how boring my third-chair clarinet music sounded. He would assure me those insignificant random notes helped our band sound better. In addition, he had to cue the musicians, keep everyone playing to the same rhythm, and put up with our end-of-the-day antics.

We can think of executive function as our own personal band director. Psychologists have identified 12 different executive functions humans use to self-regulate. Not all humans have developed all 12 functions equally, though. The executive functions are:

  • self-restraint
  • working memory
  • emotion control
  • focus
  • task initiation
  • planning/prioritization
  • organization
  • time management
  • defining and achieving goals
  • flexibility (of attitude or thought)
  • observation
  • stress tolerance

According to a review of literature done in 2015 by Adele Diamond, studies show certain types of exercise have a positive effect on a person’s executive functioning. Subjects who did exercises such as Tai Chi, which requires thoughtful movements and memorization of sequences, experienced improved executive functioning over a period of several months.

In addition to walking or running, participating in exercise that combines thought with movement will improve our ability to self-regulate.

Exercise and Learning

Exercise doesn’t just improve our executive functions, though, it also increases our neuroplasticity. Physical exercise, according to Laura Mandolesi, et al in a paper published in Frontiers in Psychology, “may be considered as an enhancer environmental factor promoting neuroplasticity.”  Neuroplasticity is our brain’s ability to grow new pathways as we learn or after injury. Thus, physical exercise enhances our brain’s ability to learn new things.

Exercise turns on our prefrontal cortex, which not only activates our executive functions but prepares our brains to learn by producing Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF). BDNF “readies our brains to be plastic,” according to Dr. John Ratey. In order to take in new information, our brains need plasticity.

Dr. Ratey sums up the importance of exercise and learning for our academic self-care this way: “Exercise is a terrific way to improve the learner because it turns on the attention system, it turns on the motivation system, and it turns on the memory system.”

If you teach or have school-aged kids, I highly recommend reading Dr. Ratey’s book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. Or, if you worry about getting Alzheimer’s, suffering through menopause, or think you may have ADD, depression, or struggle with addiction.

What If I’m Not an Early Bird

The benefits of working out before you go to school or work far outweigh the benefits of hitting the snooze button over and over all morning. According to a study for the British Journal of Sports Medicine, the time of day you break a sweat, matters. Especially for the 50+ crowd.

Study subjects who worked out first thing in the morning had increased executive functioning as well as better working memory. Executive functioning includes things like concentration, time management, the ability to start tasks. Who wouldn’t want those things at the start of every day? The improvements increased when subjects took a brisk walk later in the day, too.

Moderate exercise at the start of the day pays off—whether you’re eight or 80. If you worry about not getting enough sleep (link to sleep series), make gradual changes to your bedtime

Hacks to Improve Your Academic Self-Care

Exercise helps us learn new things more easily. These hacks will help you incorporate exercise into your academic self-care routine—even if you don’t like to exercise.

1. Figure Out Your Why

Before you start making any kinds of changes in your life, make sure you spend time figuring out your why. Why do you feel a need to improve your academic self-care? List your reasons and try to drill down on your big picture. This free self-care checklist will guide you through the process.

2. Get the Right Equipment

If you want to take your academic self-care seriously, you’ll want to invest in some basic equipment. You either need to figure out how to efficiently take your heart rate (and what constitutes aerobic exercise for you), or buy a fitness tracker with a heart rate monitor built-in. Or you could go old-school and use one of the chest strap and watch combinations.

If you don’t get your heart rate up high enough, you won’t reap the maximum academic self-care benefits of exercising first thing.

Comfortable shoes and appropriate clothing help, too. If you exercise outside, make sure you dress in layers and carry water.

3. Don’t Try a Marathon Your First Morning

Ever heard of academic self-care? Once the last school bell rings, we shouldn’t stop learning. Exercise will make it easier! #neuroplasticity #executivefunctioning #ADD #ADHD #Menopause #alzheimers #physicalactivity #runner #academicselfcare #depression #anxiety #goals #work

Small, sustainable changes will help you make lasting changes. If you hate exercise of all kinds, don’t despair. You can train yourself to tolerate (or even enjoy) physical activity. I started running in college because it didn’t take long, and I had a group of friends who ran with me. The company and conversation made running tolerable.

For the first fifteen years of running, I usually had a friend or two to run with. Eventually, I discovered I enjoyed running alone, too. I also discovered I didn’t like the way I felt when I stopped running. Running gives me the perfect opportunity to listen to audiobooks or podcasts. I can bribe myself to get my shoes on by remembering I stopped my book at a cliffhanger the day before.

To start your journey to exercising in the morning, start with five minutes. We can tolerate just about anything for five minutes. Build up by adding a minute of activity each week. Celebrate your accomplishments.

4. If Apps Are Your Jam

Maybe you don’t have friends to motivate you. Check out the Beach Body on Demand or C25K (Couch to 5 K) apps. Nike, Running, and iFit all have fun exercise programs. Some of them even have a built-in community if you like friendly competition.

5. Check Your Employee Benefits

Many employers have discovered their health care costs go down when their employees stay healthy. In order to encourage employees on their health journey, they offer benefits and bonuses for employees who track their improved habits on an app.

Our employer uses Virgin Pulse, and we get rewarded with points for exercising, eating vegetables, getting adequate sleep, and a host of other healthy activities. We can even choose which habits to track in order to earn rewards.

Employers who encourage physical activity reap a double benefit because physically active employees can focus better and work more productively.

6. Take a Hike

Ok, you don’t really have to literally take a hike, but if you struggle to understand a concept or find yourself frustrated, take a brisk walk. Even five minutes of movement will help (especially if you already exercised moderately in the morning). Power walk around the office or run up and down the stairs.

Post-Surgery Progress

It only took a month for me to start feeling the effects of not exercising. A month has passed since I got the green light to exercise, and I’m starting to feel normal again. I ran almost two miles (albeit slowly) this morning, and I can ride my bicycle (just not on precipitous mountain terrain).

My mood has improved along with my concentration. I still don’t get my usually 12-15k steps a day, but I feel almost normal again.

Physical activity will improve your academic self-care, but don’t get discouraged if you don’t notice the benefits the first day of your journey. Use the After-Action Review process to help you assess what works and doesn’t work for you.

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7 Comments

  1. A morning walk makes all the difference – even if my eyes aren’t open in the beginning. After my spinal fusion surgery (6 week recovery) – it took awhile to get back up to one mile. I get so much more done with a much brighter attitude when I do that! It also affects what I eat!

  2. Anita, I never thought about the impact exercise would have on the various aspects of executive functioning. Fascinating! I began doing some HIIT workouts and daily walking early into the pandemic, and I discovered I’m much more likely to exercise if I do it first thing in the morning. And like you, knowing I have a great book to listen to is a great motivator.

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Anita Ojeda

Anita Ojeda juggles writing with teaching high school English and history. When she's not lurking in odd places looking for rare birds, you can find her camping with her kids, adventuring with her husband or mountain biking with her students.

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