By Mina Todosijevic
On January 14, as part of Re-Orientation week, New College hosted a talk by Dr. Greg Wells. While the title of the talk (Bio-Hacking Your Way to Better Grades) was reminiscent of sci-fi, Dr. Wells addressed a topic even dearer to students: how to tailor your nutrition, sleep and exercise regime to be in peak performance during exam time. Dr. Wells, who is a professor in the Kinesiology department at U of T, has worked with both Olympic athletes and sick children.
Some of you may be disappointed that we are not talking about bionic arms, etc. However, knowing the principles Dr. Wells has talked about can be applied effectively (and with little to no cost) to your academic life should provide some level of consolation.
The base concept of the talk was getting yourself in peak mental shape by working more efficiently, as opposed to studying more. Dr. Wells emphasized habits which students could easily pick up to increase their academic performance without studying more.
Dr. Wells sold the auditorium on sleep through two key points. The first, and most important, is that memories are encoded while you sleep. In the whole spirit of studying efficiently, Dr. Wells emphasized that getting sleep (and enough sleep!) is critical to being able to retain information. Sure, you can stay up later studying, or you could go to bed and achieve better results.
Of course, Dr. Wells’ advice may seem strange. After all, haven’t we all stayed up all night before successfully pulling off a big test? Dr. Wells emphasizes that, during sleep deprivation, you are more prone to making micro-mistakes—little details you might forget—that could end up costing you that 3-5% you needed.
During exam season, Dr. Wells recommends sleeping a minimum of 4.5 hours a night, with 6 hours being the goal and 7.5 being ideal. Since a REM cycle is 90 minutes, waking up at those increments will prevent feeling groggy.
Dr. Wells’ recommended all-nighter study plan is as follows: 90 minutes of studying, 20 minutes of sleep, and 10 minutes to get back to focus.
Dr. Wells introduced the concept of nutrition by starting with everyone’s favorite nutritional supplement, coffee. Caffeine, he says, is a very useful, very legal drug. It heightens focus, makes you feel energized and helps with attention. He does recommend taking coffee before an important exam, but only less than one hour before it begins. Coffee’s withdrawal effects start 3-4 hours after drinking it, making timing crucial. Having a second coffee doesn’t stop the effects of withdrawal because the effects of caffeine aren’t additive. That also means it’s important to find a sweet spot when it comes to caffeine; while the right amount will help you focus, too much will distract you and make you fidgety.
As an alternative to coffee, Dr. Wells recommends green tea, which has the benefits of caffeine at a much lower dose. Even more exciting, Dr. Wells recommends dark chocolate (70%+ cacao) during studying and exams. It too contains some caffeine, and it increases blood flow to the brain.
Other foods which help mental functioning are foods rich in Omega 3, which will improve nerve function. Trying shots of olive oil was one of the more radical suggestions for how to incorporate Omega 3 into your diet. More accessible ways include nuts, which improve cognitive function, and avocados. Blueberries also make the cut for foods which have insane health benefits.
Drinking enough water were highly emphasized.
Finally, Dr. Wells addressed exam-period food cravings. While many of us (myself included) tend to run to the kitchen in times of stress such as exams, Dr. Wells suggested only eating until we are 80% full, so that our body can remain focused on studying, and not on digesting.
Instead of focusing on the benefits of regular exercise, Dr. Wells explained how being active right before an exam can improve mental function. He recommends 15 minutes of exercise before an exam. If that isn’t achievable, try walking up and down the stairs in the exam area, or walking around the building.
When you’re very stressed, you cannot create new memories. This can be especially worrisome during the last few weeks in the semester, when the general anxiety level at the university is at an all-time high. Long, slow, deep breathing is a very simple and very effective way to clear your thoughts and calm yourself. If you can, Dr. Wells recommends trying out 15-minute meditation videos to relax and get yourself in the best mental state to perform.
Dr. Wells had some great advice, some of which I will be testing out in the next couple of weeks. Re-Orientation was packed with fantastic events, and if you weren’t able to make it last week, be sure to check out the New College website for more events like it!