The sky interrupted by multicoloured fall leaves.

Physical Activity and the Awareness-Action Gap

In the past week I have conducted an (informal) survey of first-year undergraduate students. Shout out to everyone who answered my umpteen questions, despite being generally overwhelmed with work! You have made possible the pursuit of truth. Two broad categories emerged while I conducted my research (which involved a lot more laughter and bad jokes than I suspect research usually does): those who were previously active, that is, before university, and those who have never really been active, and find it increasingly impossible to start given the demands of university academics. The same reasons came up repeatedly:
  • I’m just way too tired.
  • I don’t have time (to exercise, or even to give thought to exercise and when I might do it).
  • My commute is two (or more) hours long, and leaves me with very little free time.
  • I go when I can but I’m way too busy to go regularly.
  • I use my free time for naps. (This is a real response and not one I made up).
  • Exercise? What’s that? Do you mean Xerxes? (This I made up).
The sun sets on a dark skyline, as seen from inside a bus.
One benefit of a long commute is getting to see the sunset from different parts of the city.
And yet, all of the people I asked were very well acquainted with the tremendous benefits of being physically active. All of them mentioned the psychological benefits: your mood is better, you’re more stress-resilient, and of course, it’s better for your body. That’s not all, though:
  • People who exercise have fewer symptoms of anxiety and depression. (There’s a high correlation between sedentary lifestyles and mental illness).
  • Exercise has been shown to be effective in the treatment of different kinds of mental illnesses. (In fact, exercise and antidepressants have much the same effect on the brain).
  • Better sleep.
  • More energy throughout your day. (So, part of the reason one is too tired to exercise might be that one doesn’t exercise to begin with).
  • Better self-esteem.
  • Slows neurodegeneration as you get older. (So it’s anti-aging cream, but for your brain).
A red-and-gold tree in fall.
Doing exercise outside is extra uplifting, because of trees such as this one.
Nearly everyone I spoke to was unaware of the cognitive benefits, however:
  • Improves memory
  • Enhances cognitive flexibility
  • Increases the speed of information processing
  • Improves attention and ability to focus
All of these benefits come with two hours of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise a week, but it’s also been proven that every little bit goes a long way. It’s often a challenge to return to exercise after an extended period (or lifetime) of inactivity, so it may be wise to start small and build it up as the weeks go by. It helps to make it part of one’s routine: for example, deciding to go to the weekly voguing class on Wednesdays after your math lecture. As students with demanding academic schedules, it’s difficult to prioritize the stuff we don’t get graded on. Good health is something we all take for granted until it’s gone, and we’re left scrambling to make amends. It’s a lot easier to make sure that nothing goes wrong to begin with- and human beings in general are not very good at that, which is why nobody did anything about climate change for a really, really long time. But the evidence is overwhelming: exercise will make you more effective at studying. If you’re focusing better, then you’re not reading the same page over and over. If you’re retaining more, then you have less to do when you revise. Thus, the hours you spend exercising could actually save you a significant amount of time in the long run.     Sources: Psychological benefits: Cognitive benefits: Every little bit counts:  

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