By: Francesca McFadden
New research indicates that being active has a strong impact on health, specifically targeting brainpower, coping with stress and improving mental health.
Dr. Jennifer Heisz, McMaster assistant professor and director of the Neurofit Lab, is engaged in research on the cognitive neuroscience behind exercise. Her research examines the effects of physical activity on brain function to promote health and cognition in young and older adults.
“A single bout of exercise focuses your attention so that you can learn better in class. Regular physical activity can help you to cope with stressors for overall better mental health,” Heisz explained.
“Mental illness is on the rise, and students are more at-risk than most. One in three university students will experience symptoms of depression at one point during their time at school. With expectations for high grades come high-stakes pressures for exams leading many students to experience chronic stress and anxiety.”
Examinations act as physiological stressors, which release cortisol into the body. In small doses, cortisol is beneficial as it allows us to effectively deal with stressors. However, Heisz explains, “Prolonged increases in cortisol can damage the hippocampus — a key brain region involved in learning, memory and regulation of the stress response. Ironically, the intense pressure to achieve top grades can compromise a student’s ability to effectively learn and retain the knowledge they need to perform well academically.”
During exam season, time is of the essence, thus many students don’t see physical activity as a priority. Heisz debunks this misconception through research by concluding that exercise can be beneficial to students by creating resiliency to physiological stressors.
There are many opportunities on and off campus for students to get active. McMaster Recreation offers intramural sports, yoga, a climbing wall and fitness classes. The Arrive and Thrive project offers a gentle approach to blending physical activity with engagement in the student community. Another possibility for students is to explore Hamilton’s nature trails or visit a nearby waterfall.
Getting physical activity does not need to be a long and tedious endeavour. “The benefits can be achieved with just thirty minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, like brisk walking, three times a week. This may sound like a costly time investment during a hectic period when other activities demand your attention. However, prioritizing exercise can increase the quality of the time spent on these demanding activities,” Heisz explained.
Heisz uses social media to interact with the community and bring awareness to her research. Recently, Heisz posted the hashtag #FeedYourHippo on Twitter.
“In the context of #FeedYourHippo, your ‘hippo’ refers to your hippocampus — a key brain region involved in learning and memory and regulation of the stress response. Exercise helps to #FeedYourHippo by promoting neurogenesis (i.e., the birth of newborn neurons) in the hippocampus to improve memory function.”
With the Pulse recently having undergone renovations, it is a perfect opportunity for students to get active and feed their hippos. Students can greatly benefit from making exercise an essential part of their week, positively impacting performance academically and mentally.