Improve exam performance through food and activity

There is strong evidence linking healthy eating and physical activity with academic achievement.

  • Let food be thy medicine and medicine be thy food. — Hippocrates, father of medicine, 431 B.C.
  • Eat Food. Not Too much. Mostly Plants.Michael Pollan, renowned food expert and journalist, 2007 A.D.

1. Eat a good breakfast on exam days.
Research shows that students who eat breakfast perform better in exams. For the best breakfast, include slow-release carbohydrates, such as whole rolled porridge oats, whole grain bread or low-sugar muesli, as they provide slow-release energy. Add a protein food, such as milk, yoghurt or eggs, to keep you feeling full for longer. On exam day aim to include a portion of a food rich in long-chain Omega-3 fats, such as salmon or sardines, as they are believed to have brain-boosting properties.

2. Keep hydrated for increased concentration
One of the best ways to maximise your focus is to stay hydrated. Even mild dehydration can lead to tiredness, headaches, reduced alertness and diminished concentration.

Take a bottle of water into the exam if you’re allowed to; a study of university students found that those who brought drinks, especially water, with them into the exam performed on average 5% better than those who didn’t. Start the day with a big glass of water or fruit tea. The European Food Safety Authority recommends women drink about 1.6 litres of fluid a day and men 2 litres. That’s eight to ten 200ml glasses. Water is ideal. Tea and coffee count too, but are high in caffeine. It’s best to avoid sweet fizzy and energy drinks, which are high in sugar, as they’ll lead to energy peaks and troughs.

3. Food to help you focus
Eating a balanced diet can help you focus and avoid illness. No single food is nutritionally complete, so you need variety. Try not to skip meals or your blood-sugar level will drop.

Healthy proportions of vegetables, protein and whole grains should comprise a healthy, balanced diet.

4. Get plenty of sleep
Not getting enough sleep may negatively affect your memory and slow your responses. Experts believe memory neurons that are responsible for converting short-term memories into long-term ones work most effectively when we are asleep. There’s evidence that students who sleep for seven hours a night do on average 10% better than those who get less sleep. But what should you eat and drink at bedtime to promote sleep?

What should you eat before bedtime?
A heavy meal too close to bedtime can interfere with sleep, so try to have your last meal at least three hours before you go to bed. Then have a small snack such as a bowl of high-fibre cereal like porridge just before bedtime. If you need sweetener with cereal, go for dried fruit rather than sugar.

What should you drink at bedtime?
Avoid foods and drinks that contain caffeine, such as tea, coffee, cola and chocolate, for at least four hours before going to bed. Be aware that some people who are very sensitive to caffeine can still feel the effect 12 hours later. A warm glass of milk can help you sleep better.

5. Keep active
In a study done at the University of British Columbia, researchers found that regular aerobic exercise, the kind that gets your heart and your sweat glands pumping, appears to boost the size of the hippocampus, the brain area involved in verbal memory and learning. Resistance training, balance and muscle toning exercises did not have the same results.

Exercise helps memory and thinking through both direct and indirect means. The benefits of exercise come directly from its ability to reduce insulin resistance, reduce inflammation, and stimulate the release of growth factors—chemicals in the brain that affect the health of brain cells, the growth of new blood vessels in the brain, and even the abundance and survival of new brain cells.

Indirectly, exercise improves mood and sleep, and reduces stress and anxiety. Problems in these areas frequently cause or contribute to cognitive impairment.

Many studies have suggested that the parts of the brain that control thinking and memory (the prefrontal cortex and medial temporal cortex) have greater volume in people who exercise versus people who don’t. “Even more exciting is the finding that engaging in a program of regular exercise of moderate intensity over six months or a year is associated with an increase in the volume of selected brain regions,” says Dr. Scott McGinnis, a neurologist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital and an instructor in neurology at Harvard Medical School.

So… eat wisely and keep active to maximise your potential for both learning throughout the year and leading up to and during exams.

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