Why active breaks are important for study

When exams are around the corner and assignment deadlines are looming, the art of cramming becomes second nature to most students. Usually the first thing to go from someone’s schedule is that dedicated time you give to training or exercise but there are so many reasons that exercising and active breaks should be a top priority when working towards your degree.

Sedentary behaviour is bad for your health

We’ve all heard reports that sitting down is the smoking of our generation. We spent millions of years as active hunter-gathers and all of a sudden we’re spending our days sedentary at a desk. We’re not designed to do this so it’s probably not good for us.

While it’s safe to say that smoking and sitting are in no way comparable, there is evidence that the act of sitting for long periods of time does have a negative impact on health. In a 2013 study by WHO found that worldwide, physical inactivity is responsible for between 6-10% of the major non-communicable diseases (diseases that are non-infectious or non-transmissible) such as coronary heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and breast and colon cancers, collectively responsible for 9% of premature mortality. It was also found that life expectancy could rise by reducing this inactivity, and up to 1.5 years could be gained for individuals in Ireland (Lee et al., 2012).

Physical activity reduces stress

Stress and anxiety are on the rise in young people, in particular when the workload piles up. Studies suggest that exercise induces changes in how the body’s stress response, the HPA axis, operates and filters stress hormones, effectively making you more resilient to stress (Tsatsoulis & Fountoulakis, 2006). Exercise is also know to contribute hugely to mental health, boosting mood and wellbeing.

Physical activity improves academic performance

There is buckets of papers out there that highlight how physical activity can boost your performance in the exam hall. Studies note that any exercise, from a single bout of exercise to regular activity, can affect cognitive performance. Exercise helps to oxygenate the brain and release tension, helping you to keep calm, mentally relax and study more efficiently (Harold W. Kohl et al., 2013).

Extra pro tip

Are you a little bit extra? Evidence is growing in support of the idea that exercise while studying improves learning. Schmidt-Kassow et al. (2013) found participants in their study had remembered if they were exercising during the encoding process if they were engaging in low intensity training, like walking on a treadmill. Does this suggest that you should bring your notes to the gym or ditch Spotify for a podcast on the topic of the next exam? Try it out and see for yourself.


Harold W. Kohl III, Cook HD, Environment C on PA and PE in the S, Board F and N & Medicine I of (2013). Physical Activity, Fitness, and Physical Education: Effects on Academic Performance. National Academies Press (US).

Lee I-M, Shiroma EJ, Lobelo F, Puska P, Blair SN & Katzmarzyk PT (2012). Impact of Physical Inactivity on the World’s Major Non-Communicable Diseases. Lancet 380, 219–229.

Schmidt-Kassow M, Deusser M, Thiel C, Otterbein S, Montag C, Reuter M, Banzer W & Kaiser J (2013). Physical Exercise during Encoding Improves Vocabulary Learning in Young Female Adults: A Neuroendocrinological Study. PLOS ONE 8, e64172.

Tsatsoulis A & Fountoulakis S (2006). The Protective Role of Exercise on Stress System Dysregulation and Comorbidities. Ann N Y Acad Sci 1083, 196–213.