"I feel like I'm not nearly as effective as I was in high school. I used to be so efficient, and now I feel like I waste time or can't think as fast."

I've heard variations on this theme from many college and post-college students who were productive in high school. Over the years, I've come to believe that this feeling of inefficiency derives from the lack of two important things that highly-achieving high schoolers—many of whom played some sort of sport—typically have: structure and exercise. I will discuss structure in later posts, but I want to spend some time focusing on exercise now.

Exercise is important for everyone, but it is really essential for the scholar.

 Here are some of the main reasons why it should be a fundamental habit.

Exercise helps your brain function. A lot. The book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by Harvard psychiatrist John Ratey goes into extensive detail about how exercise helps your brain. One of the most interesting findings: schools that have implemented early-morning fitness programs have shown significant increases in student performance when compared to schools without such programs. Ratey proposes that exercise stimulates neural growth, making your brain far more receptive to learning and memory throughout the day.

Exercise can help combat hours of sitting. Most students study sitting down. Research has shown that sitting for extended period of time can lead to all sorts of health problems, so students (and desk-workers) are at risk. While exercise can't completely reverse this, it can definitely help to combat consequences of a sedentary lifestyle. So, in addition to exercising, also consider a standing desk.

Exercise gets you out of your head. After spending a day in the library, exercise can literally help you to clear your head by focusing your thoughts on the workout rather than academic stressors. And don’t forget the benefits of endorphins!

A habit of exercise can anchor routines. 

Exercise can be referred to as "Keystone Habit", as mentioned  in The Power of Habit by award-winning New York Times business reporter Charles Duhigg. Keystone habits are those that create cascading benefits by anchoring other positive habits. In other words, if you exercise every day, it may help you to improve other habits as well, like studying regularly and eating well. College and post-college life often does not have the rigid structure of high school, so a regular exercise regime can act as a stabilizing aspect of an otherwise unstructured day.

If you lose the habit of exercise in college, you may lose it for life. 

College is a transitional time between adolescence and adulthood. There are two main reasons you should maintain your fitness in college (or start being fit):  

  1. It is increasingly harder to get your fitness level up as every year goes by. Getting in shape at 20 is a very different (and much easier) task than at 30.
  2. You are less likely to continue a habit of fitness after you leave college as your commitments to your career and personal life increase.

One of the most interesting arguments about exercise, also from Spark, is that the growth of our brain and intelligence as a species was evolutionarily linked to the increased movement of our bodies. As we became more mobile, we became smarter. And, Ratey conjectures, we need to continue moving to foster that intelligence.