The Brain-Boosting Power of Sleep and Exercise

Posted by Neha Sunkara, '21 on Feb 2, 2021 10:31:08 AM

When was the last time you had a full eight hours of sleep? I hope that you would say last night, but the world we live in now treats sleep as something that can be easily sacrificed. Sometimes, as I walk down the halls, I hear people comparing how much sleep they got and almost praising the person with the least amount of sleep. I have heard stories of people who pulled all-nighters to finish a project. How is this our normal? Instead of sacrificing sleep, we should be prioritizing it.

Everything we do to our bodies is connected to our brains, and as Dr. Lisa Damour said, “Sleep is the glue that holds human beings together.” Sleep and studying are not an either-or proposition. Without sleep, studying is simply less effective.

As Deborah Farmer Kris describes it in her fourth Habits of Mind workshop, The Brain-Boosting Power of Sleep & Exercise, “Sleep is a study strategy.”

Before you continue reading this article, reflect on these four prompts:

  • How does lack of sleep affect your learning?
  • How does lack of sleep affect your emotions?
  • What does it feel like to be well-rested?
  • What prevents you from getting quality sleep?

    "Sleep is a study strategy."

    ~Mrs. Kris

     

You have probably heard many times that sleep is good for you, but here are two categories of concrete effects of sleep on your body.

1. Sleep improves memory, creativity, and response time.

Yes, sleep can actually help you perform better in school, art, sports, and driving. In fact, a 2010 Harvard study proved that dreaming helps your brain process, reorganize, consolidate, and reinforce information. In the study, 99 college students were given 60 minutes to learn to solve a maze puzzle. Then, the students were given a break, during which half were allowed to nap for 90 minutes and others allowed to read and relax. When the students returned to the puzzle, the people who dreamed about the puzzle while napping did substantially better. Their dreams did not portray the solution to the puzzle, but the dreams helped their brain consolidate their memories, which resulted in improved problem-solving skills. Dreams occur during REM (rapid eye movement) sleep, when your brain’s prefrontal cortex (your processing center) and your visual and auditory parts are active. As a result, you have better memory, more creativity, and faster response times when you sleep

 

2. Sleep boosts mood and health.

Do you notice that when you don’t sleep enough, you get cranky or angry? This is because when you are not getting enough sleep, your amygdala, which is like the fire alarm of your brain that processes fearful stimuli, rings like a faulty fire alarm. Your amygdala overreacts to fearful stimuli, which makes you annoyed and grumpy. Lack of sleep also increases you to risk developing a cold or a medical condition, which is important especially during this pandemic. While you sleep, your body releases many chemicals which help heal and repair your body.

 

Five Strategies for Improving Your Sleep

Now that you understand the importance of getting sleep, hopefully these five strategies from Mrs. Kris will help you improve your amount of sleep.

Establish a sleep routine (and stick to it — even on weekends).

An example of a sleep routine is dimming the lights, stretching, reading (not a school book) for 15 minutes, and journaling. No screens either, as I explain below. A sleep routine should be calming so that you can get ready to sleep and rest your brain. A consistent bedtime and wake time, even on the weekends, are also important. It is okay to sleep in during the weekends, but just don’t sleep in like crazy. I know many people try to make up the sleep they lost during the week on the weekend, but this inconsistent sleep schedule messes with your circadian rhythm. Instead, try taking a nap during the day rather than sleeping in.

Use light to your advantage.

Avoiding electronics is also essential for a healthy sleep routine. Phones emit blue light, which messes with your melatonin production since blue light stimulates sunlight. Melatonin is a hormone which lets your body know when it is time to sleep and wake up. If your melatonin is out of whack, you will have a hard time falling asleep. Try to turn off your screens at least one hour before bedtime. On the other hand, natural light is great for you. Natural light keeps your body awake during the day. So keep your room dark at night, but allow the sun in during the morning and day.

Watch the caffeine intake after noon

There is a reason caffeine is called a drug. Many sleep-deprived students rely on coffee to help them power through the day. However, caffeine after 12 PM stays in your body and affects how you sleep. Caffeine can delay the timing of your internal body clock, reduce your sleep time, and reduce the amount of deep sleep you can get. Remember, deep or REM sleep is essential for memory consolidation and reorganization. Caffeine creates a cycle of sleep deprivation. When you consume caffeine before bedtime, you lose sleep, prompting you to drink more coffee and so on.

 

Embrace Micro-Naps

I always say that it is impossible for me to nap during the day, but napping is actually very beneficial. A little power nap of 15 minutes can boost your cognitive performance and help you focus. In one study, participants were asked to memorize 30 words. Next, the participants were given a small break — then asked to recall the words. Those who did not take a nap, remembered six words. Those who took a six-minute nap remembered eight words, and those who took a 30 minute nap remembered nine words. This improved recall following napping is because napping allows the brain to be on diffuse mode and consolidate information, so the participants who took a nap were able to remember more words. Just remember, if you are going to take a nap, make sure it is not too close to your bedtime so it does not mess with your circadian rhythm. 

Exercise!

I really want to stress how amazingly transformative exercise is. As neuroscientist Wendy Suzuki describes it: “Exercise is a supercharged 401k for your brain.” When you exercise, your body releases a “bubble bath” of neurochemicals, neurotransmitters, and endorphins, which help improve your focus and energy. Exercising for 20-30 minutes can lead to about one to two hours of focus and energy. A 20-minute walk gives you more energy than caffeine does, plus there are no negative after effects to exercise. Just make sure you stop two hours before bed so that your body has time to cool down. The minimum amount of exercise to feel these amazing benefits is at least 30 minutes a day, three times a week. The hippocampus, which plays a major part in learning and memory, actually increases in volume when you exercise because exercise creates new brain cells in the hippocampus. Your brain is like a muscle. Exercise strengthens your prefrontal cortex and hippocampus, which are most susceptible to degeneration with age. Exercise gives you better mood, better energy, and better attention.

I hope I’ve inspired you to go take a nap, get some sleep, or exercise for 30 minutes. I also hope that you will try these strategies and get at least eight hours of sleep per night. Sleep and exercise combined are excellent study strategies. Don’t sacrifice them.

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