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Uugh, even the word makes me shudder. And for many of us (especially the procrastinators, the unprepared and the exam phobes), just thinking about them can send a wave of panic through the body.

The last thing you probably want to hear right now is some unproductive, ineffective advice on how you could be revising better or how to cram as much into your poor brain as possible. I promise this isn’t that.

It is however something that many of us don’t think to do during exam time, or even right before sitting an exam. A way to prepare yourself that’ll help you de-stress, re-focus and perform to the best of your ability.

It’s time for a new approach.

One that’s going to stop you from wanting to hide in a small cupboard instead of sitting awful exams. One that’ll stop your brain cogs clunking and instead get them humming like a well-oiled machine. And most importantly, one that will set you up for exam success.

Here’s the one thing you MUST DO to make sure you nail your exams.


OK, it’s not really a trick, so much as an ace up your sleeve.

When you’re feeling the strain, it’s hours before your exam and you desperately need to take a break from the books, have you ever thought of having a quick workout? Before you roll your eyes and think “yeah right, as if I have time to exercise” – just hear me out.

There’s a mountain of evidence to say that a short bout of exercise – even just 15 minutes – can get those brain cells fired up again.

In a recent study from researchers from Stanford University, findings suggested that:

“[A] single bout of exercise appears to have comparable and positive effects on both affective experience and cognitive performance.”

In plain English, exercise may help to calm you down and give an immediate boost of brainpower.

Pretty effective prep if you’re just about to sit an exam, huh?!

However, alongside a quick sweat sesh to get the brain warmed up, nothing beats regular exercise to ensure you perform at your best.

In a memory and mood experiment published in the Neuroscience journal, participants who worked out for a month in the run up to, and the day of the test, performed better and reported feeling less anxiety compared to participants who had done no exercise. Though the totally inactive participants who did do a quick bout of exercise the day of the memory test generally felt more anxious – no doubt a shock to the system – overall the experiment found that:

“Exercise enhanced […] memory and produced a beneficial decrease in perceived stress.”

Researchers concluded that exercise generally enhances the ability to remember.

Who knew that exercise doubled as memory training? Another ace for when you want to recall all that hard revision on the big day.


Exercise can also help get you in the right frame of mind – or at least a more positive one.

If you need a pre-exam mood boost, even a 10-minute workout can give you an instant hit of happy. Not just because it’s a welcome break from stressful revision, but because exercise causes your brain to produce endorphins (the little neurotransmitters that make us feel pretty darn awesome after working out).

So if you need less of the “fail me now…” defeatism and more of the “YES – I CAN DO THIS SH!T!” attitude, some natural mood boosting drugs are your best option. And yep, you guessed it – exercise is by far the quickest and easiest way to get your chemical plant (more commonly known as the pituitary gland) pumping out the good stuff.

What’s more, a good mood has also been linked to effective problem solving. A study published in the Psychological Science journal found that:

“Subjects in the positive-mood condition performed better than subjects in the neutral- or negative-mood conditions in classifying stimuli from rule-described categories.”

In a nutshell, being in a positive mood gives you more brain juice to solve problems and puzzles. Not a bad state of mind to be in if you’ve got hours of perplexing exam questions ahead of you.

But exercise shouldn’t just be a quick fix. Yes, it works as a great pick-me-up, but again, regular exercise is the sure-fire way to make that positive attitude stick. Research published in the journal of Psychology of Sport and Exercise found:

“[I]ncreased levels of exercise would result in significant increases in positive mood states and reductions in negative mood.”

Note ‘significant’ increases in positive mood.

Plus let’s face it, most of us can do with a bit more positivity now and again, regardless of whether it’s exam time or not.


We all worry about looking good and staying in shape, but what about keeping our brain in tip-top condition?

On a more serious note, exercise is a long-term commitment if you want to keep your brain fit and functioning well as you get older.

How fit you are and the exercise you do earlier in life can still be paying off into your 40’s and 50’s as this study from the University of Minnesota found:

“Better verbal memory and faster psychomotor speed at ages 43 to 55 years were clearly associated with better CRF [cardiorespiratory fitness] 25 years earlier.”

A whole twenty five years earlier! That’s crazy!

Physical activity is also recommended as treatment, and has been found to have preventative effects, for many mental disorders and diseases.

Several studies have advocated exercise as one of the most effective ways to fight depression due to the feel-good chemicals (dopamine, serotonin and endorphins) that flood your body post-workout. It is also suggested that physical activity can even help ward off dementia later in life.

Researchers are pumping out study after study on how physical activity improves cognitive function. But what if we’re still only scratching the surface when it comes to understanding what exercise can do for our cognitive ability and mental health? Whatever the case, the evidence is mounting, and no doubt there’s more to come.


OK, so there’s not really a hard-n-fast way to push your brain’s ON button.

One thing’s for sure though, it doesn’t have to be a hardcore, hour-long workout session. As mentioned earlier, as little as 15 minutes of heart-pumping activity can have an immediate effect on cognitive performance.

It really can be as simple as 15 minutes of cycling to uni, having a super-quick HIIT session or doing a speedy weights workout.

Think of it as your pre-exam warm up. Getting your brain ready for the big match. You wouldn’t head out for 90 minutes of soccer, 60 minutes of netball or 8 seconds of bull riding without some pre-game stretching, would you? Same principal.

In terms of what type of exercise is best, findings from a meta-analytic study from the University of Illinois on the effect of exercise for cognitive function in adults found that:

“[P]articipants in combined strength and aerobic training regimens improved to a reliably greater degree than those in aerobic training alone.”

This suggests that a mixed workout routine makes for the best all-round improvement in brainpower.


Overall, the point is, this isn’t BS. Physical activity has been scientifically proven to help your brain perform better.

Yes, there will be other factors like making sure you get enough sleep, drinking enough water and not eating a load of crappy food in the run up. Sugar crash mid-exam, ouch!

So surely, if cramming and coffee chugging isn’t cutting it, you can find 15 spare minutes to do this small but crucial bit of exam prep?

A bit of regular exercise and a well-timed 15-minute workout the morning of your exam is all it takes.

Do this and you’ll have your brain fully primed, be confident that you can bang out that A+ essay no problem and go into that exam feeling as cool as a double-denim wearing Jean-Claude Van Damme on a snowy mountain, drinking beer.

How are you going to prepare for your next exam?

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Pete.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Dhinal Chheda.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Emery Way.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Emilio Labrador.

Flickr Creative Commons Image via Judit Klein.

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