Banner by: Alexandra McDonough
Cardio Before Class?
by Carson Clark
Each fall, millions of college students across the country pack up their wardrobes, hug Mom and Dad goodbye, and set off for their new homes. Seeking higher education and job opportunities, these students often put a lot of effort into being successful in the classroom. However, this is easier said than done; difficult material, extracurricular obligations, and busy social scenes can very easily overwhelm young college students. So how, then, does one handle the academic and emotional rigors of post-secondary study? Recent research suggests one habit that may help: exercise.
Students already struggle to squeeze in time to study between their full class schedule and outside commitments, so exercise might seem like a counterintuitive way to spend time. Research reveals benefits from physical activity, though, that may make you think twice before skipping the gym. For instance, a 2013 study found that a randomly chosen group of young adults that used a stationary bike for 15 minutes prior to a memory test scored higher than those in a sedentary control group (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3768113/). According to Heidi Godman of the Harvard Health Letter, aerobic exercise appears to increase the size of the brain’s hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning (https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/regular-exercise-changes-brain-improve-memory-thinking-skills-201404097110). So, when you’re up at 3 a.m. trying to cram terms for tomorrow’s psychology exam, a run on the treadmill might just be what your association cortex needs.
In addition to rigorous academic hurdles, mental health issues can very easily block a student’s path to success. Depression, whose symptoms include fatigue, irritability, prolonged headaches and persistent sadness, can make it nearly impossible for some students to maintain the acute focus and concentration many college courses demand. A 2013 survey of over 100,000 college students revealed that a staggering 30% of students said they “experienced depression and had difficulty functioning because of it.” (http://www.apa.org/monitor/2014/09/cover-pressure.aspx).
As this epidemic rages on, researchers believe that the antidepressant effects of exercise could play some role in the solution. While research on the cause of this apparent correlation is still ongoing, a few hypotheses are in contention for acceptance in the scientific community. One of the most promising is the Monoamine Hypothesis, which maintains that exercise alleviates depression by increasing production of excitatory neurotransmitters such as dopamine that are normally present at low levels in cases of depression.
Recent research suggests that dopamine may play a more vital role in depression than once thought. One experiment found that when injected with dopamine, rats were more likely to exert more effort for more food. Rats with low levels of dopamine always settled for the low effort, low food route. This parallels the challenges of college coursework quite clearly; are you developing an efficient study plan for each test, or are you just going to lectures and hoping the tests will be easy? Exercise might give you the boost in motivation you need to make that study guide and finish those note cards. Whether this also applies to humans is a current topic of research. Exercise has been found to increase neurotransmitters in human plasma and urine, but whether similar changes are seen in the human brain has yet to be experimentally supported. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25540977)
Yet another hypothesis, the Distraction Hypothesis, proposes that the activity of exercise itself simply helps distract depressed patients from their negative and often self-defeating mindset. Support of this hypothesis has surged thanks to studies that have shown exercise to be more effective at treating depression than activities that encourage patients to reflect on their feelings, like journaling and introspection. While it is vital for students suffering from depression to seek professional and medical treatment, exercise does seem to provide symptomatic relief. No matter which hypothesis is ultimately accepted, the correlation is clear: consistent exercise almost universally shows reduction in depressive symptoms. (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC474733/#i1523-5998-6-3-104-b36)
Anxiety disorders have also been recently endemic on college campuses. With most students hailing from relatively small graduating classes of a few hundred, it is not surprising that the enormous class sizes at many public institutions are overwhelming to many. Students are suddenly share a bathroom with 50 strangers and sit listening to lectures amidst 300 peers. With this in mind, it is no wonder that college students are so prone to anxiety conditions. The 2014 National College Health Assessment found that 15.8% of American college students were diagnosed with or treated for anxiety issues (http://www.bu.edu/today/2016/college-students-anxiety-and-depression/). Symptoms of anxiety disorders include restlessness, prolonged states of panic, insomnia, lethargy and a host of other hardships. Handling heavy course loads through a sea of unending anxiety is a Herculean task.
Fortunately, clinical researchers have found that exercise – especially rhythmic exercise, such as walking, running or swimming – eases the mind and relieves symptoms of anxiety. Researchers propose that increases in core body temperatures during exercise can soothe regions of the brain, leading to a release of muscular strain and an overall feeling of relaxation. Exercise also causes increases in endorphin secretion. Endorphins, responsible for the legendary “runner’s high,” alleviate symptoms of anxiety by blocking pain and stress.
College is tough. Exams are hard, classes are big, and it never truly feels like you got enough sleep. In our busy day-to-day lives, exercise often is a low priority on our to-do lists. We may be underestimating its importance, however; correlational and experimental studies display the academic, mental, and emotional benefits of exercise. To the many college students overwhelmed with academic expectations or mental health hardships, exercise may serve as a beacon of hope.