How to Take Care of Yourself to Improve Learning: Difference between revisions


Students beginning university or college must adapt to a new environment and take on new responsibilities.[1] They can become vulnerable to several stressors that are part of student life, including course schedules, exams and deadlines, new relationships, and new surroundings.[2] When transitioning to a student lifestyle, students are at risk of developing unhealthy behaviours, such as not eating well, being sedentary and not getting enough good-quality sleep.[1] Research shows that a healthy diet and positive lifestyle behaviours significantly affect cognitive functioning, while fast food consumption leads to poorer executive functioning and visual memory performance in students.[3] Self-care habits, which include consuming a balanced diet and getting enough exercise and sleep, can positively impact a student’s ability to learn effectively.[4]

Social relationships also impact learning. Social relationships are a “sum of the social interactions between people in the process of joint activities.”[5] Family, teachers, friends, and peers influence a student’s life in many ways. In particular, family and newly formed relationships at school can shape academic performance.[5]

This article offers a general overview of how diet, exercise, sleep, and social relationships can impact learning and as adults, our learning journey continues, making these skills beneficial for professionals of all age groups

Balanced Diet and Learning[edit | edit source]

Michael Pollan’s principles of a balanced diet are summarised as follows.

“Real food is something that starts going off after a few days. Food is what you buy in the bakery, butcher, and deli sections in supermarkets.”[4]

“The portion you dish up should be about the size of a medium-sized bowl.”[4]

” A diet should be made up mostly of fruit and vegetables.”[4]

Diet and Cognitive Function[edit | edit source]

Key facts about diet:

  • the brain needs up to 25% of your daily energy output
  • the brain needs a steady supply of glucose from complex carbohydrates for sustained mental clarity and focus – complex carbohydrates are also associated with improved short- and long-term memory and successful brain ageing[7][8]
  • we need foods rich in fatty acids, antioxidants, vitamins and minerals to nourish and protect neural tissue
  • consuming various foods like fruits, vegetables, lean protein, and whole grains can significantly impact mental acuity[9]
  • to supply adequate energy for the brain, we must:
    • eat nutrient-dense foods
    • have regular meals and snacks to maintain blood glucose levels[10]
  • to help maintain energy levels and mood stability, we should limit our intake of processed foods high in sugar and unhealthy fats
  • dehydration negatively impacts cognitive abilities, including concentration and memory, so drink plenty of water[11]

Regular Exercise and Learning[edit | edit source]

“Taking regular breaks to include some form of exercise may boost performance.”[4] — Michael Rowe

Key facts about regular exercises:

  • regular physical activity improves blood flow to the brain, contributing to better cognitive function
  • a combination of aerobic and strengthening exercise helps reduce stress and enhance mood and sleep quality
  • exercise may improve neuroplasticity, improving memory and fostering mental resilience
  • regular exercise stimulates the release of hormones that boost focus, memory, and learning capacity
  • light exercise can counteract the fatigue and mental fog associated with long study periods
  • exercising helps the brain transition from focused attention (i.e. when you concentrate on a specific task) to the diffuse mode, a relaxed state of mind where your brain is better at connecting different ideas:
    • activities that don’t require intense concentration, like running or walking, are best to allow your mind to enter the diffuse mode
    • the diffuse mode allows better problem-solving and a deeper understanding of your learning

Well-Rounded Exercise Regime[edit | edit source]

Ideally, we should exercise for at least 150 minutes per week[12] or 30 minutes on most days. Combining two to three of the following activities can be considered a well-rounded exercise regime.

  • Aerobic activities:
    • examples: walking, jogging, swimming, or cycling
    • benefits: raises your heart rate and boosts blood flow and oxygen to the brain
    • dosage: aim for twenty to thirty minutes of moderate exercises three to five times per week
  • Yoga
    • benefits: improves mood, reduces stress, and increases focus
    • dosage: two to three times a week
  • Dancing
    • benefits: improves coordination, balance, memory, and spatial awareness, and the social aspect can provide cognitive benefits
    • dosage: one to two dance classes per week
  • Jumping jacks
    • benefits: facilitates constant movement of all parts of your body and can, therefore, stimulate a significant increase in blood flow to your brain
    • dosage: one to two minutes as often as needed throughout long study sessions to re-boost your energy and concentration
  • Tai Chi
    • benefits: activates parts of the brain involved in concentration, problem-solving, and mental flexibility
    • dosage: ten to twenty minutes, a few times a week
  • Strength training
    • example: weightlifting
    • benefits: boosts levels of hormones that support memory and learning
    • dosage: two to three strength training workouts per week
  • Stretching exercises
    • examples: gentle stretching of your neck, shoulders, and back
    • benefits: increase blood flow and relieves muscle tension that can interfere with focus
    • dosage: thirty to sixty seconds hold for each stretch
  • Heart-pumping activity (quick bursts)
    • examples: running up stairs or skipping
    • benefits: helps to boost focus and cognitive performance immediately
    • dosage: five to ten minutes of a high-intensity cardiovascular workout, two to three times per week

“Adults need seven to nine hours of sleep per night for optimal cognitive function.”[4] — Michael Rowe

Key facts about sleep habits:

  • deep, restorative sleep is essential for memory consolidation
  • deep sleep is implicated in our creativity, problem-solving, and decision-making
  • poor sleep can impair your ability to learn and concentrate the next day
  • poor sleep negatively impacts your mental health, education, and relationships with others[13]
  • poor sleep can have a negative impact on learning and performance
  • good sleeping habits can help you to remember more[14]

How to Improve Sleep Hygiene[edit | edit source]

The following tips can help you improve your sleep hygiene:

  • maintain a consistent sleep schedule
  • ensure seven to nine hours of sleep per night
  • create a restful environment when you are trying to fall asleep (e.g. keep your bedroom dark, quiet, and cool)
  • limit your exposure to bright screens for at least an hour before bedtime
  • avoid large meals, caffeine, and alcohol close to bedtime
  • physical activity during the day can help you fall asleep more easily at night, but avoid exercising too close to bedtime
  • use meditation, deep breathing, yoga, or reading a book to help you relax before bed
  • if you’re unable to fall asleep, try reading a book, listening to calming music, or doing light stretching until you start feeling sleepy again

Social Relationships and Learning[edit | edit source]

“Interacting with peers, teachers, and mentors can greatly enhance the learning experience by exposing you to different perspectives.”[4] — Michael Rowe

Key facts about social relationships:

  • protect against disease and cognitive decline
  • increase the sense of trust we have in our communities
  • increase resilience in the face of adversity
  • make us more open to new experiences and ideas
  • provide emotional support and motivation, which are essential for sustained learning
  • improve our learning outcomes, and make learning more enjoyable
  • enhance mental well-being, which indirectly affects learning capacity
  • improve mood, reduce stress, and increase emotional well-being
  • present opportunities for mentorship
  • offer additional opportunities to learn and grow through attending talks, workshops, and other events that can provide practical experience and further deepen your understanding of the subject matter

How to Harness Social Relationships in Learning[edit | edit source]

The following tips can help you form strong social relationships in a learning setting:

  • form or join study groups
  • seek out formal and informal mentors
  • teach someone else what you have learned
  • participate in online forums, discussion groups, or social media platforms
  • engage in projects with peers, friends, and family members
  • participate in virtual interactions and connect with like-minded students and experts from around the world

The following strategies can help you to develop a healthy lifestyle which positively impacts your learning:

  • eat a balanced diet:
    • prepare a weekly meal plan
    • include a wide range of complex carbohydrates, omega-3 fatty acids, antioxidants and lean proteins in your diet
    • learn more about diet by reading Michael Pollan’s “Food Rules”
  • engage in regular exercise:
    • schedule regular exercise times into your daily calendar
    • start with manageable goals like a thirty-minute walk each day
    • gradually increase the intensity or duration of exercise as your fitness improves
    • try out different forms of exercise and experiment with a range of options
  • pay attention to sleep hygiene:
    • establish a consistent sleep schedule
    • create a bedtime routine to help your body and mind wind down
  • nurture social connections:
    • form or join a study group related to your programme of study
    • schedule regular meetings to increase motivation and information retention
    • include regular social activities that aren’t directly related to study

Developing healthy habits around sleep, nutrition, exercise, and relationships will support and enhance your learning:

  • care for your mind and your body if you want to reach your full potential
  • integrate self-care strategies into your routine
  • be patient with yourself and celebrate your progress along the way
  • do not hesitate to seek help when needed
  1. 1.0 1.1 Al-Haifi AR, Al-Awadhi BA, Bumaryoum NY, Alajmi FA, Ashkanani RH, Al-Hazzaa HM. The association between academic performance indicators and lifestyle behaviors among Kuwaiti college students. J Health Popul Nutr. 2023 Apr 4;42(1):27.
  2. Lesińska-Sawicka M, Pisarek E, Nagórska M. The Health Behaviours of Students from Selected Countries-A Comparative Study. Nurs Rep. 2021 May 31;11(2):404-417.
  3. Pilato IB, Beezhold B, Radnitz C. Diet and lifestyle factors associated with cognitive performance in college students. Journal of American College Health 2022; 70(7): 2230-2236.
  4. 4.0 4.1 4.2 4.3 4.4 4.5 4.6 Rowe M. How to Take Care of Yourself to Improve Learning. Plus Course, 2023.
  5. 5.0 5.1 Li Y, Qiu L, Sun B. School engagement as a mediator in students’ social relationships and academic performance: a survey based on CiteSpace. International Journal of Crowd Science 2021; 5 (1):17-30.
  6. 6.0 6.1 6.2 NPR. ‘In Defense of Food’ Author Offers Advice For Health. Available from https://www.npr.org/2008/01/01/17725932/in-defense-of-food-author-offers-advice-for-health [last accessed 9.12.2023]
  7. Muth AK, Park SQ. The impact of dietary macronutrient intake on cognitive function and the brain. Clin Nutr. 2021 Jun;40(6):3999-4010.
  8. Beezhold B, Radnitz C, Dalrymple J, Feldman A, Todd L, Fatima F, Filbin C, Fritz R, Gerlach E, Gulling P, Walker E. Adequate Hydration and Sleep Support Pre‐Test Cognitive Performance in College Students. The FASEB Journal. 2017 Apr;31:636-21.
  9. Peltzer K, Pengpid S. Correlates of healthy fruit and vegetable diet in students in low, middle and high income countries. Int J Public Health. 2015 Jan;60(1):79-90.
  10. Murakami K, Livingstone MB. Associations between Meal and Snack Frequency and Diet Quality in US Adults: National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey 2003-2012. J Acad Nutr Diet. 2016 Jul;116(7):1101-13.
  11. Ottewell JE. Think to drink: the effects of adequate hydration on student performance (Doctoral dissertation, Lethbridge, Alta.: University of Lethbridge, Faculty of Education, 2002).
  12. World Health Organization. Physical Activity. Available from: https://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/physical-activity (last accessed 13 December 2023).
  13. Carrión-Pantoja S, Prados G, Chouchou F, Holguín M, Mendoza-Vinces Á, Expósito-Ruiz M, Fernández-Puerta L. Insomnia symptoms, sleep hygiene, mental health, and academic performance in Spanish university students: A cross-sectional study. Journal of Clinical Medicine. 2022 Apr 2;11(7):1989.
  14. Okano K, Kaczmarzyk JR, Dave N, Gabrieli JDE, Grossman JC. Sleep quality, duration, and consistency are associated with better academic performance in college students. npj Sci. Learn. 2019; 4(16).

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