By Pat Bowden, published June 27, 2017.
Your mind works best when it has access to nutritional food to feed your brain cells, exercise to keep the blood flowing optimally and sufficient rest so your brain can recover.
There is plenty of information on foods to keep the body and brain healthy in order to optimise learning. Eating a variety of foods including plenty of vegetables and fruit, whole grains rather than processed, plus protein foods such as legumes, seafood and meat are best, according to many nutrition experts. If you eat dairy foods such as milk, cheese or yoghurt, low-fat varieties are recommended. Limiting consumption of salt, sugar and saturated fats are common recommendations in many countries’ guidelines.
It’s best to stick to reputable sites. Some of the “information” out there in Internet Land is neither accurate nor helpful. Here are some useful sites:
- Healthy Diet Fact Sheet produced by the World Health Organisation (WHO).
- Dietary Guidelines For Americans.
- Food Based Dietary Guidelines in Europe.
- Australian Guide to Healthy Eating.
- For individual advice you can arrange an online consultation with an accredited practicing dietitian, for instance.
We also need to remember to keep the body hydrated to avoid physical stress due to low water content in the blood, brain, and other organs. Water is the best way to hydrate. Sugary drinks, caffeine overload and excess alcohol are best avoided, or kept for infrequent special occasions.
You may like to take a MOOC on healthy eating. A range of courses is available on several MOOC providers. Some to look out for:
- Stanford Introduction to Food and Health on Coursera.
- Nutrition: Healthy Food for Better Living (Wageningen University), an XSeries program on edX made up of three courses. You can do the courses separately if you prefer.
- Food as Medicine (Monash University) on FutureLearn.
Snacks such as vegetable pieces or fruit along with water or unsweetened tea or coffee can keep hunger or boredom at bay while studying.
In “Learning How to Learn” on Coursera, Barbara Oakley and Terrence Sejnowski discuss the importance of exercise to optimise brain function. Aerobic exercise is particularly useful, even if it’s simply a brisk walk. Other sites that discuss this topic are:
- Harvard Medical School. This article looks at the relationship between exercise and brain health due to increased blood flow.
- Here is a 2013 scientific article titled “The Influence of Exercise on Cognitive Abilities” by Fernando Gomez-Pinilla and Charles Hillman.
There are not many MOOCs on exercise, but you could look into:
- Exercise Prescription for the Prevention and Treatment of Disease (Trinity College, Dublin) on FutureLearn.
- Science of Exercise (University of Colorado Boulder) on Coursera.
Fitting in exercise while studying can be tricky, but the above research tells us that we should boost our blood flow through exercise at least several times each week. What about a treadmill desk while watching videos? If this is outside your budget, just walking, marching or jogging on the spot can be useful. Put your laptop or computer monitor on a higher shelf so you’re not looking down. Some small hand weights can help with pumping the arms while pacing. If you need to take notes and can’t move around while watching the videos, use your study breaks to get that vital blood flow happening.
Give your brain regular rests after concentrating on study. Have you tried the Pomodoro Technique? Concentrate hard for 25 minutes then give your brain a 5-minute break by walking around or doing something else completely different for those few minutes. Studies show that switching the brain away from concentrated thought can help with creativity and problem solving.
Different people need different amounts of sleep. Some people need nine hours or more every night, while others can function well on five hours or even less. Tune into your own body’s needs, sleep when you need to and make the most of your individual waking and sleeping rhythm. If possible, take a siesta when your body needs it. Some people find meditation useful to recharge their brain. If you are a night owl, study at night but if you feel freshest in the morning, try getting up early to fit in an hour or more before your daily tasks need to be done. If you need more sleep than your friend, do your best to achieve that essential rest. On the other hand, if you can cope with only a few hours sleep like Thomas Edison or Winston Churchill you have more time to fit things in.
Sleep is essential to refresh ourselves physically and also help us make the most of our waking hours. Some sites that discuss the importance of sleep include:
- Why is Sleep Important? National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NIH).
- Benefits of Sleep Harvard Medical School.
While I could not find any MOOCs specifically about sleep, the benefits of sleep are discussed in Learning How to Learn. EdX offers Introduction to Health and Wellness by Arizona State University which discusses diet, fitness and sleep, as well as other health topics such as managing stress.
A Final Thought
It can be easy to forget to look after yourself while studying (see my post on MOOC Obsession). Nutritious food, regular exercise and sufficient rest will not only help you reach your study goals, they could also improve your health.