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How To Stay Healthy During the Exam Season

It’s that time of semester again. The days til your next exam begin to/already outnumber the lectures you still need to catch up on. Exams are more than marathon brain boot camps, the rest of your body is also hard at work, so what you put in it is what you get out. We hope you read this before you go out for your trip to stockpile your instant noodles and energy drink stash, as we’re about to share with you some tips to stay healthy even during the hectic exam season.

TL;DR: eat a balanced diet with low GI foods, don't skip breakfast, fit in a minimum of 30 minutes exercise daily, and get 7-9 hours sleep every night.

Eat Well

This one is a no-brainer in theory, but it can be a menace to master in practice. Your brain naturally craves more sugar when it faces challenging tasks, so pamper it with a good variety of nutrients and energy.

  • Eat Low GI foods - Foods which are low in GI (glycaemic index) are absorbed more slowly in your body, so the release of energy is sustained over a longer period of time. Foods low in GI are proteins (meats, fish, and lentils), low GI carbs (such as muesli, wholegrain, rye, and oats), and the ‘healthy’ fats (omega-3 and unsaturated). Eating low GI won’t mean cutting down on good food, we were gingerly surprised to find an entire library of recipes on GI Symbol ranging from almond muffins to tacos.

A good breakfast gets you good marks, gets you a well-paying job, gets you a home.
  • Never skip breakfast - A good breakfast is your best friend on the day of an exam, even if it is an early morning test. Low GI foods are excellent here - pack plenty of protein so you can last all morning, and avoid sugary or processed foods as the last thing you want to feel is the crash during your exam. Form a habit of eating breakfast (and your other meals) over regular intervals at the same time each day so that your body can adapt to a rhythm. This helps your body optimise your digestion and absorption of nutrients, and regularity in your attention and energy.

  • Balance your diet - Time is never a compromise for a fully-functioning, exam-destroying duo of brain and body. The Australian Dietary Guidelines recommend that you have variety in what you eat (unfortunately it doesn’t mention alternating Tim Tam varieties) every day to satisfy your basic nutritional needs. The CSIRO recently reported that we… kind of abandoned all these recommendations despite growing up with them - a status quo we should definitely change. Snack on some fruit and veg, boys and girls, it’s good for you.

A yummy pie chart of what a balanced diet can look like. Sauce: Australian Dietary Guidelines Summary, 2013.
  • Snack small - Have mercy on yourself when it comes to snacking. We can end up conditioning ourselves to snack frequently, especially during or after studying, which can have negative consequences on our metabolism. Train yourself by not rewarding yourself per se after completing a task, but having designated times for smaller meals such as a bowl of fruit or nuts before you start another study session.

  • Use caffeine strategically - This one doesn’t apply so much if you don’t drink coffee (which is not a bad thing) but if you enjoy a good cuppa, it can be in your favour to have it strategically. Caffeine is great for alertness and concentration and is also present in tea, apples, and chocolate. After drinking coffee on an empty stomach, it takes around 40-45 minutes for most of the caffeine to be absorbed. Its effect usually wears out quicker if you are an avid coffee lover. If you plan on sleeping, give yourself at least 4-6 hours without drinking any more before bed so you can comfortably get some shut eye. 
Even the god of thunder loves a good coffee
  • A very effective way to get a good kick out of your coffee is doing the coffee nap. Essentially you combine the effects of coffee and a power nap to regain alertness. The author personally tried this out several times after lunch (when he normally feels his energy is lowest) by first drinking a cup of coffee (2 shots) and napping for 20-30 minutes. Energy and mood improved more than when only coffee is used.
Coffee + Nap = The Best Thing Ever. Source: Vox

  • Energy drinks and caffeine tablets are also very commonly used. The pros are that they give you the same kick that coffee does and are simple to take. The cons are that there are usually larger doses of caffeine, it’s easier to overdose, and you don’t get the nice aroma and taste from a good cup of coffee. Oh - one last thing - caffeine dehydrates you so especially don’t forget to...

  • Stay hydrated - remember to drink water throughout the day by placing a bottle or cup of water in front of you as a reminder. Your whole body will thank you for it!

Remember to Move

Here’s a quick activity in self-awareness, ask yourself this: 1. “How many hours do I spend sitting every day?”2. “How many hours do I set aside to do exercise every day?” Research shows that simply getting in a minimum of 30 minutes daily exercise can significantly reduce stress (which improves digestion), elevate your mood, improve heart health, memory, attention, cognition, and immunity. Don’t give yourself excuses, there are plenty of ways you can get in some movement even if you’re indoors. Take for example the 7-minute workout (there’s apps for this), dances (Fitness Marshall and AIESEC Roll Calls), and stretching regularly (at least once an hour) in your breaks. Doing exercises in the morning gives yourself a head start to the day and ‘get it out of the way’ so you can focus on studying. Otherwise, do it your way - as long as you get in your daily minimums.

Slide, slide, slide your marks up. Source: AIESEC

Get Smart: Get Sleep

One of the best pieces of advice my high school math teacher gave me was to get enough sleep before my exams. Sleep essentially lets your body repair itself from cellular level wear and tear and gives your brain some time to archive memories properly and reset itself so it can be at its best capacity the next day. The National Sleep Foundation recommends that we should get 7-9 hours of good sleep every night to get all its benefits.

So how much sleep should we be getting? Unless you know you function differently, it is recommended you get 7 to 9 hours of sleep every night if you are between 18 and 25 years old. Source: National Sleep Foundation

If you find it tough getting a good night’s sleep, small tweaks in your daily routine can help. Here are some of the tips the Sleep Foundation recommends if you want to improve your sleeping patterns:

  • Keep to a sleep schedule, even during weekends so your body can become accustomed to it.
  • Practice a relaxing bedtime ritual.
  • Exercising daily will help you reduce stress and fatigues yourself so you become less restless at night.
  • Evaluate your bedroom to ensure ideal temperature, sound and light.
  • Sleep on a comfortable mattress and pillows.
  • Avoid alcohol and caffeine at all costs in the late afternoon and evening.
  • Turn off your electronics or put them on silent/airplane mode before bed so you don’t get woken up in the middle of the night from notifications.
When nothing you studied is even in the exam anyways. Sleep now, not later.

The easiest thing to forget to bring to an exam is the best version of yourself you can muster. Negative thoughts and feelings will create a negative cycle, so it’s essential that we work on countering them daily. A great place to start is making healthy habits for improving your own health and wellbeing. So if you find yourself stuck thinking it’s the end of the world the night before an exam, just know that you’ve given it all you can, just know that a good night’s rest and a big breakfast in the morning will help you do much better than throwing a few more hours to cram.

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After exams are all over, don’t forget these tips because maintaining good health and wellbeing is something to live by - it happens to be Goal 3 of the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals (SDG). If you would like to do more for SDG 3, check out some of AIESEC’s volunteering opportunities for Good Health and Wellbeing at aiesec.org.

Daniel Chong

When he's not cracking dad jokes, Daniel is usually digging around for interesting and useful bits of knowledge. He's currently in his honours year doing medical research at the University of Sydney. His favourite medicine is strolling through a museum or gallery or just staying snug at home with a good TV series.