This episode is about the positive effects of exercise. Peter and Charlie will talk to OAR intern Bess Cohen about her experience starting an exercise routine. Then we will chat with Nat Ballenburg and Cory Walts at the Fitness Center to discuss easy tips for exercise that students can implement.
Elom: This podcast is a production of the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College. For more information about the OAR, go to Haverford.edu/OAR
PG: Welcome to the Compass, your guide to learning and thriving in college. I’m Peter Granville.
CB: And I’m Charlie Bruce. Pete, before we begin, can I just share something I learned with you?
PG: Sure, what’s that?
CB: I’m taking a certification course to be a yoga teacher. In the class I went to recently, we were talking about the breath, and how breathing can affect the two divisions of the body’s nervous system.
PG: Oh yeah – you’re talking about the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, right?
CB: That’s right – when you’re stressed out, your sympathetic nervous system mode is in charge. It can be hard to focus, because your brain is in fight or flight mode. But, when your parasympathetic system takes the wheel, you’re more relaxed. You can focus and digest the world around you.
PG: And where does the yoga come in?
CB: One of the eight limbs of yoga is pranayama, which means breath control. This is a little bit of a simplistic definition, but prana means life force, and yama means control. Prana is gathered from the breath, so when we control our breath in meditation, we’re practicing pranayama. Just breathing will move you from a sympathetic nervous system response to a parasympathetic nervous system response.
PG: Which would reduce stress and help you focus during meditation.
PG: That’s so useful. Does that calmness stay with you after you’re done with yoga?
CB: Totally. Imagine two scenarios Scenario one: you start your day, snooze the alarm, get out of bed with the second one, realize you’re behind schedule, rush through getting yourself ready for the day, and by the time you get to work or class, you’ve realized you’ve forgotten something important. Have you had one of those days?
PG: Yes, it’s no fun.
CB: Not at all! The moving through the actions with frenzy will increase the cortisol levels in your body. BUT, if you were to get up, maybe fifteen minutes earlier, and meditate for ten minutes, you would feel calm. Recent studies show that MRI scans on the brains of people who’ve meditated over the long term show a DECREASE IN SIZE of the amygdala, the part of the brain that controls fight or flight. Over time, shrinking the amygdala means your responses to stressful situations decrease as well.
PG: You know, this reminds me of when I would go running in college whenever I’d hit a wall in my studying or paper-writing. Even though I was running and exerting energy, I would come back refreshed and ready to get back to work. In general, I also felt a lot less stressed during the semesters I was running regularly than those when I wasn’t.
CB: I feel like you’re onto something here. If yoga reduces stress and running sharpens mental focus, then maybe there are other benefits to exercise for college students.
PG: I’d say so. One of the interns in our office, Bess Cohen, has been doing some research on this question of how exercise can aid the learning process, and she’s here to talk to us about what she’s found. Welcome to the podcast, Bess!
BC: Thanks for inviting me!
PG: Today, Bess is going to talk about how exercise can be a tool to success in college, and how she learned of its positive impact as a member of the Sneetches.
CB: Hold on one second – what are the Sneetches? Or, who are the Sneetches?
BC: The Sneetches is the women’s ultimate frisbee team. I joined the Sneetches my first year at Haverford.
CB: Did you play any sports in high school?
BC: I did not.
CB: How did you join the women’s ultimate team?
BC: My PAF made me join.
PG: A PAF is a Peer Awareness Facilitator. They’re a part of the dorm leadership team.
BC: My freshman year, my PAF was on the ultimate team, and she had been bugging me for a day or two to come to a Sneetches practice. One day I did, and I’ve been on the team ever since.
CB: Nice! And how has that worked out for you?
BC: Pretty well. The people were really nice! Throughout freshman year the sport stressed me out, but being around such supportive people was encouraging, and that’s why I stuck with it. Now, I have a great group of friends, I exercise regularly, and it gave me a way to structure my time more effectively.
CB: Who doesn’t want all of that?
BC: I know! But I think most importantly, it feeds into my belief that academic success is more than just hard work. Unhealthy habits can undermine hard work. Exercise is one way that academic success, and just happiness in general, can be facilitated.
PG: Bess, you researched some of the positive impacts of exercise. What would you like to share today?
BC: Well, I found some interesting data on how much college students exercise – in short, they’re not exercising enough, which is unfortunate, because the benefits of a regular routine can actually tackle some of the problems students have, like focus, memory-retention, and even just being happy.
PG: Great! Could you walk us through what you found in your research? How much do college students exercise?
BC: The numbers vary, but most studies agree that college students do not get the recommended amount of exercise. One study from Pitt this year found that only 39 percent of college students exercised three or more times per week.
CB: So you’re saying students should exercise at least a few times every week, but most college students don’t.
BC: That’s right. And exercise shouldn’t just be frequent – it should really get your heart pumping. A study from the American College Health Association says that 44 percent of students met the recommendations for moderate or vigorous exercise, or a combination of both.
PG: So both studies indicate that less than half of students get the exercise they need.
BC: Right, and this does have an impact on students’ performance. Think of exercise like oiling a bicycle. When a bicycle has gears that aren’t regularly greased, it’s harder to pedal. If you regularly grease a bicycle, it runs well. But you don’t want to over-grease it either, just like you don’t want to over-exercise.
CB: That makes sense – but why exactly? What’s going on inside the brain?
BC: Great question. Studies show that exercise encourages connections to form between neurons in the cerebellum, which controls our social interactions. Light intensity exercise arouses the brain, priming it to learn. And higher cardiorespiratory fitness levels are associated with larger hippocampal volumes, which means better memory function.
PG: So you’re saying exercise improves how we engage with others, learn new things, and remember information. Does it impact studying?
BC: Right! Exercise makes you study better because it improves alertness, attention, and motivation. The same endorphins that make you feel good physically also help stimulate your brain so that you concentrate better and feel mentally sharp for tasks at hand. Exercise also stimulates the growth of new brain cells and helps prevent age-related decline.
CB: I never particularly enjoyed PE in school, but it does sound like it had a real purpose: it improved the learning that was going on during the rest of the day.
BC: And there’s more! Exercise also helps reduce inflammation, which can ward off diseases like cancer or diabetes, or neurodegenerative conditions like Alzheimer’s.
BC: Beyond this physical effect, exercise just makes you happy. I found one guide that says that a regular fitness routine can be just as effective in treating mild to moderate depression as antidepressant medication.
CB: That’s amazing, and it’s an important piece of this discussion, since mental wellness is so essential to learning and thriving in college.
BC: Exactly. Depression and anxiety are on the rise in college students, so a lot of people could benefit from using exercise as a tool for success.
PG: Bess, I was just at a conference for research on higher education, and these researchers at the University of Iowa looked at the benefits of exercise on the psychological well-being of college students. Three and a half hours of exercise per week had significantly positive effects on feelings of personal growth, positive relations with others, and self-acceptance.
BC: So is three and a half hours per week the magic number?
PG: These effects kicked in around three and a half hours and got a little bit stronger with more exercise. The researchers say this amount, which is half an hour every day, offers the most bang for your buck.
BC: Makes sense! In addition to improving your learning and happiness, exercise also helps you sleep. You don’t even need to exercise that much to see the benefits. In one study, just 50 minutes of moderate physical activity a week was shown to increase quality of sleep in more than half of the study participants.
PG: That’s super interesting! It sounds like there’s not necessarily a one-size-fits all prescription for exercise.
CB: So just to recap – I hear a lot of benefits. Exercising, even just an hour a week, can improve long term health, memory recall, and happiness.
BC: But you also don’t want to exercise too much. If you push yourself past your physical limit, by working out say for six hours a day, you could contract rhabdomyolysis, which is the breakdown of muscle tissue through putting too much strain on the muscles without recovery period.
CB: Wow, that sounds scary.
BC: Right. So instead, go for consistency. Going for a four hour run once a month, while it helps, doesn’t create a balanced lifestyle. Exercising twice a week for half an hour though can have a lot of benefits.
CB: So Bess, it’s clear that exercise can make anyone feel better – but some people think of it as arduous, no fun. How do you make exercise enjoyable?
BC: Having a group of friends to work out with makes it more enjoyable! Working out with friends gives me a support network and provides accountability, and it helps create a diversity of exercises that I wouldn’t have thought of on my own. Also, instead of needing to find time to be social and also needing to find time to exercise, this time meets both needs at once!
PG: Has anyone at Haverford helped you all as an ultimate frisbee team?
BC: Nat Ballenberg at the fitness center actually wrote the lift program that the Sneetches do during our on and off seasons.
PG: Nat has helped me out too in my fitness. So has Cory Walts, the director of the fitness center.
CB: I’d love to hear what they have to say about exercise as it can be practiced by Haverford students.
CB: The first question that I want to ask y’all is how much exercise do college students actually need.
CW: I don’t like to put a number on the amount of exercise, I like to say “Be Active”. The difference between activity and exercise, exercise is basically planned activity, activity is basically walking moving getting up and using the stairs, lifting something up and down, but not x-amount of reps and lifting a certain amount of weight or running a certain amount. So just be active for as much as you can, and if you want to increase the intensity, then come into some planned exercise program. And if you’re asking for how much exercise a good place to start is 3-5 days a week, you can do some planned exercise 3-5 days a week, you’re off to a good start.
NB: If you’re looking for a number, just do more, people are too sedentary in general. You know I think college students are spending so much time in class, so much time at a computer at a desk sitting down, just get up move around, do more activity. If you want to exercise, great, if not, just be active as much as possible.
CB: You’ve talked a little bit about the difference between being active and exercising. Can you talk what the effects of exercise are on the brain and body?
CW: First, the brain, if you don’t have a sharp brain, then really not much is going to happen. Exercise will help with your cognitive function, it will help with memory retention, it will increase blood flow to the brain so it will just help brain cells function better, it will help your self esteem, especially in the morning if you do something active in the morning, it will help you for the rest of the day, as opposed to just doing it in the afternoon. There are so many positive things that exercise does to the body, I was just telling Matt earlier, after reading a list of some of these, why would you not exercise? I would guarantee that you would get more out of your brain than anything else, exercising is that important for you.
Nat: Yeah your memory retention is better if you work out then you study, you’ll actually remember things better. There’s actually a doctor, but we didn’t even tough on this but things like stress and anxiety will be relieved by exercise. There’s a doctor who people go, they see him, they get their evaluation, and he writes on their prescription: three days a week: lifting. And he writes up a program for them, and his prescription says “Heavy lifting” and there are studies that shown that there have been studies of this. Heavy lifting compared to moderate exercise does wonders for anxiety issues and stress issues, and people who are going in, getting in diagnosed for actual diseases are getting prescribed exercise and it actually helps more than anything.
CB: What are some practical methods of exercise that a student can do in a 15 minute study break.
NB: I think one of the best ways to go about getting in planned exercise within a 4 or 5 hour study window is to have planned study breaks. So you work for a half hour or 45 minutes or hour and ten, you get tired, you get up, go about your routine. So get up, do a 15 minute walk. That’s a great option, you can do stretching and yoga type things. You can do tobata, so tobata is a circuit, its 20 seconds on 10 seconds off up to 8 rounds. A whole circuit takes 8 minutes. You can do push ups. or air squats or some sort of planks or sit ups or anything that you want to do, lunges jumping jacks, burpees, these are all great things to do in your dorm room. Strength exercise, if you live close to the gym come to the gym, hold it in front of you as you do squats, there are lots of things that you can do that have weight that you can do exercise with. But things that range from stretching to high intensity interval training.
CB: But it would be a good way of greasing the mind and getting active. So let’s say a student doesn’t have a watch or a phone on them, what are some signs that they’ve been too sedentary for too long?
CW: If they’re not sharp so if they find themselves being distracted easily. If your first instinct is to go to your phone, go to social media, that’s how you know you’re not focused on the task at hand, Also if you start to get a small headache, and you’ve been reading too long part of your body is falling asleep, achy, needs to move around.
NB: If you’re struggling with a problem. You find out you’re rereading the same page for a book for class. You get up, you’ll benefit more for that than trying to crush that page, give yourself ten or 15 minutes away, you’ll fresh mind sharp focus.
CB: These are wonderful helpful tips, is there anything else you’d like to add? In terms of what students should know about exercising and being active.
Cory: Use us, use the fitness center, we are here for you. so there’s a variety of things that we can offer, and when I say we, it’s not only Nat and myself, the students that use the facility. We have workouts to provide you with a different types of intensity different types of workouts. We can provide handwritten workouts. We have online workouts through this program called Team Builder, where you can pull up exercises, track your progress, we’re able to provide those, we’re simply here during the day to talk to show you things. We’re here to help. This is a big year for us because we highered Nat, in previous years, Nat was a volunteer to our staff, and now he’s a full-time member of our staff. Wendy Smith, our athletic director, made a point, she wanted to provide more resources for the entire campus, and this position for that. So everyone that’s listening, we made a whole position here for you. And that is Nat.
CB: Thank you both so much!
CB: Next episode, we’re going to talk with our OAR interns Vanessa, Sebastian, and Lilly, about a really important topic in higher ed right now: diversity and inclusion in the classroom.
PG: This podcast is a production of the Office of Academic Resources at Haverford College. Special thanks to Nat Ballenberg and Cory Walts at the Haverford Fitness Center, and Bess Cohen, our student intern.
CB: You can email us a question or topic you’d like to hear on an episode at HC DASH OAR AT haverford DOT E-D-U.