When exam season hits, all healthy habits tend to fly out of the window. It has the potential to be a period of stress, late nights, junky snacks and long hours of sitting down, but it does not have to be that way! These are the section-editor's top five tips for having a healthy exam season, both physically and mentally.
The most important thing during an exam period is SLEEP. If you structure your day and work efficiently with the tips listed below, then there is no reason why you cannot get a good 7 to 9 hours of sleep a night. Lack of sleep can heighten your propensity for, or exacerbate already existing, mental health problems and it damages your immune system.
Make sure you stop working at least half an hour before you go to bed and do not take your laptop or phone with you. Overstimulation before going to sleep puts unnecessary stress on your brain and will make your sleep less restful.
Another related point is the necessity of awake down-time. An exam period is not the time to give up your hobbies. Missing an hour or two of revision for a bath, rugby practice, life-drawing class or game of FIFA will not have detrimental effects on your results. If anything, it will boost them, because your brain will be well-rested and more able to take in information.
2. Healthy eating
This is a very simple, yet frequently ignored, one. To function, your brain needs vitamins, minerals and energy. Without a sufficient supply of these three things your brain will not work properly. This will have a detrimental effect on your abilities to focus, to take in information and, most importantly, on your mental health. I cannot emphasise enough how important this is. A decent-sized bowl of high-fibre cereal and a piece of fruit is a good breakfast. Kick off your day with sustainable slow-release energy and sustain it with vegetable-, carbohydrate- and protein-filled lunches and dinners. Good snacks can include yoghurts, fruit, biscuits, nuts, toast and carrots with hummus.
I understand that, for those with a difficult relationship with food, carbohydrates can be scary. TV shows, movies and magazines all tell us that carbohydrates were placed in our fridges by the devil. However, THIS IS NOT THE CASE. Carbohydrates are your friends. Carbohydrates will give you the energy needed to revise for long periods of time, and will reduce the temptation to reach for the sugar-filled snack that will result in an energy rush, followed by a plummeting low that will disrupt, not only your revision, but your mental health.
Also, stay hydrated. It is recommended that you drink between 2 and 3 litres of water a day. This will help all general brain function and will keep you feeling energised.
Good sources of carbohydrates are – rice, pasta, cereal, bread and potatoes.
Good sources of protein are – eggs, nuts, beans, meat and fish.
Good sources of vitamins and minerals are - all fruits and vegetables.
Also, fun mum-facts: fish helps you remember things and eggs help you concentrate.
And SAY "NO" TO JUNK!
I know that when the exam period hits going to the gym is the last thing on your mind and the first thing to be thrown out of your weekly routine. You barely have enough time to revise, let alone run!
BUT, everybody knows that staying fit is vital for maintaining your physical and mental health and exams do not make this any less true. Fresh air and exercise will keep your blood pumping, oxygen circulating and your mind focused. This does not have to mean a 10km run or an hour pumping iron in the gym. It can be as little as a daily 30-minute walk on the beach. The fresh air will clear your head and release endorphins (aka "happy hormones"). A good exercise routine will help you stay fit, release pent-up nervous energy and regulate your hormones.
4. Plan your revision
The dreaded revision plan. Every teacher, parent, weird uncle and old-lady-at-the-bus-stop bangs on about them. What a faf. The folks grew up in a different time, with a different education system. What do they reallllly know?? And even if they do have a vague idea of how to work properly, surely… surely this is just the first move towards a heavy schedule of procrastination? With excel, commands, colour-coding and bold type, revision timetables are a procrastinator’s dream, they MUST be a plot coordinated by the procrastination-devil…
Alas, no. Just the process of making one and making a slow, organised start to revision gets you gently into the mindset of working. Making a list of everything you need to do and fitting it into the days leading up to your exams will simultaneously organise your mind and calmly remind you that there really is enough time to get it all done.
Be specific - outline exactly what must be done. “English Lit” is not good enough. Tell yourself exactly which book/theme/topic you will be revising, and outline exactly what needs to be achieved in the time allocated.
Be realistic – “But I never stick to them!!” is the most frequent objection whenever a revision plan is suggested. If you are finding it difficult to stick to, then your plan is not realistic. Assess your capabilities and fill your day accordingly. If you know you cannot focus for longer than 30 minutes at a time, then plan a 5-minute break every 30 minutes.
Do not be afraid to make adjustments – Your plan is not your Bible (or any other didactic religious text of your choosing). If you find yourself to have been overly ambitious when you first put your plan together, then it is far more productive to adjust your plan than to sit panicking, doing nothing.
5. Structure your day
This is another one that may just seem like more effort than it is worth, but treating your day as if it is a school or work day will put you in the mindset to work from the very beginning. This will make you feel organised, which will give you the confidence and discipline to make yourself organised. If you start the day lazily, you will continue the day lazily, and that will just increase your stress levels and tempt you to stay up late working. Similarly, like the revision plan, it leaves you with no doubt about what you are meant to be doing that day.
Wake up at 8/8.30, giving yourself an hour for a leisurely get-up, then start to work. Have a 10-20 minute break for “elevenses” and then give yourself at least an hour’s lunch break. Do NOT continue to work while you eat. Eating while working will make you eat too quickly, hindering digestion, and you will not get the rest your brain needs after a morning of work.
In the afternoon, give yourself another short break at around 4 (depending on what time you had lunch) then, again, stop for dinner. I would strongly advise leaving your work here. After an eight-hour day of efficient revision your brain will be exhausted and it will need to unwind before you go to sleep. Going to bed straight after your brain has been functioning at a high level, without a wind-down period, can damage your brain and make sleep more difficult. If you must work after dinner (as, at university, we all know it is sometimes necessary) make sure you give yourself a good break, at least an hour and a half, and stop at least half an hour before you sleep.
Scheduling your down-time will help you avoid procrastination. If you know you have scheduled time later in the day to watch as many youtube videos as you like, you will be less tempted to watch them during your scheduled work time.
If you take anything away from this list then let it be this – structure and consistency are the key. If you have everything pre-planned then it will reduce unnecessary stress. Your body is happiest when there are as few unexpected changes as possible, so regulate your hormones through regular healthy meals, regular exercise and enough sleep. Keep your day ordered and structured and remember to work efficiently and rest efficiently.
And lastly, remember - it will all be fine!