By Lexi Schiff
It is the night before a big midterm and Jacob Gutstein is on a run. A freshman in the McCormick School of Engineering, Gutstein has made a habit of exercising before a big test because he says it helps clear his mind.
Gutstein might be onto something. Ironically, what is considered procrastinating in academic circles is usually what is considered healthy in others. Many psychologists confirm that there are real academic benefits to taking breaks from work to exercise or move around outside. There is evidence to suggest a specific and powerful relationship between fitness and cognition, according to studies published in the National Center for Biotechnology Information in 2008. These findings make a strong assertion that moving around while studying, taking frequent walks, or exercising regularly may improve “cognitive flexibility and behavioral adjustments” which allow us to “more appropriately meet task demands or intended goals.” In other words, moving physically improves us mentally.
However, the validity of this idea is not reflected in societal values. We do not value putting off work, taking vacations or even enjoying a 10 minute coffee break. No one chastises taking breaks from physical work, but taking a break from taxing mental labor is often denounced. There is a stigma surrounding taking a leave of absence from work or school for mental health reasons. This misunderstanding lies in the belief that procrastinating, or taking a leave of absence in any form, is a reflection of not trying hard enough, when the reality is that we often procrastinate because we are trying too hard. Because we need a break. We value innumerable, consecutive hours of cramming, essay-writing and mind-numbing work over alternative methods that lead to creativity and intellect. But why?
The notion that there is a significant connection between physical movement and mental health is not a new one. For years before research backed it up, clichéd and melodramatic movies have reinforced the idea that taking a walk to clear your head is as powerful cinematically as it is physiologically. But recent studies show that simply by moving your body, “you may gain access to a ‘back door’ to the mental changes that you desire without having to ‘psych yourself’ into feeling better.”
Alex Neumann would attest to that. “After physical activity, my mind feels refreshed and reinvigorated, as opposed to that lazy and muddled feeling on days where I just stay in bed all day,”says Neumann, a freshman in Weinberg. And that much is purely biological. Releasing endorphins is a proven mood booster, so naturally by allowing our bodies the time to experience such a scientifically-confirmed mental catalyst, our brain thanks us in return.
This idea has become increasingly popular lately. In an area of psychology called embodied cognition (the “latest sexy topic in cognitive science,” according to an article by Dr. Jeff Thompson in Psychology Today), the body is extremely influential to the brain and its mental processes. According to the article “Why You Are Not Your Brain” from Scientific American, “Our cognition is influenced, perhaps determined by, our experiences in the physical world.”
It is for these reasons that I affectionately call myself a procrastinator because I know firsthand that physical movement enables mental movement as well. Maybe it is the florescent lighting in University Library or the smell of old books that kills my brain cells, but in either case, the minute I leave for Norbucks I can remember that word I had on the tip of my tongue the whole day. I come up with my best project proposals, essay responses and article pitches on my walk to class every morning. Sitting in the library for seven sequential hours only seems to drive me into a mental rut.
If taking a small break from work for a little dose of fresh air and exercise makes for a happier and more prosperous student body, we need to work toward reversing the culture of cramming in poorly-ventilated libraries. If movement, mental health and academic success are all correlated, it is in all of our best interests to become procrastinators.