Future Fellows - September 2014
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Importance of Exercise during Study Season

While William Shakespeare pondered the question of "to be, or not to be" in his famous drama, a few members of the Candidate Liaison Committee decided to think about another timeless question of "to exercise, or not to exercise" (that is, to exercise or to stay home and study). Here are their observations.

Quantitative Exercises by David McFarland

It’s prime exam season and I’m hunched over a binder I didn’t realize came in that level of thickness, wondering why I just didn’t major in communications and spend the last 4 years exploring my inner me while mopping floors at a university.

I could be playing kickball with newly formed acquaintances. Instead, I’ve spent the last 2 hours studying. Prior to that, I spent 8 hours working. I’m pretty sure the floaters in my eyes have floaters now.

I’ll never learn to play kickball.

Sometimes I make a list of things in my life that I need to exclude when it’s crunch time. Exercise seems to make it on there every time… but, does it need to? My brain has got to get something out of it. Besides, secluding myself in the same, strained position for hours can’t be good for me. They must have done studies on this. Shoot, they’ve done studies on the psychic abilities of canines.

Google will know.

Ok – there are too many studies. Apparently, not only does studying boost morale and all that wishy-washy emotional benefit stuff that Yo Gabba Gabba encourages, but there’s some legitimate other findings. It turns out that exercising before studying significantly improves long-term memory. That’s useful.

Additionally, exercising makes more nutrients available to the brain. Good to know, too. I’ve been told nutrients are good for me… what else?

Here we go: Epinephrine – think of the disturbing Uma Thurman/needle scene in Pulp Fiction. Exercise makes this hormone pour out like Hipsters at a rock concert that you haven’t heard of before.

So what?

So everything! You saw how intense Uma was after that shot. Imagine having that kind of intensity while studying. I could take Feldblum and Mahler in one sitting.

OK. So there are benefits. But will the cost of the extra gym time really be worth me giving up valuable study time?

Let’s consider.

While there is no quantitative proof, I’m assuming exercising 30 minutes three times a week will improve my ability to retain the material by 10%. Let’s assume that I only retain about 50% of what I put in when I don’t exercise. I normally study for 350 hours for an exam. If I exercise then I’ll be putting in approximately 24 hours (16 weeks x 3 days/week x 0.5 hours/day) over the exam season. Assuming these hours are deducted from my studies that leaves me with 326 hours of study time which I’ve retained 55% compared to 350 hours of study time I’ve retained 50% of. So in the end, I’m looking at approximately 179 hours of retained knowledge with exercise, compared to 175 hours without it… interesting. Ok, slight payoff assuming a 10% gain from studying. Not too shabby.

From a cost-benefit analysis it actually seems like there is a legitimate reason to hit the weights. Shoot, beyond just improving my ‘mind grapes’ I’ll feel better, I’ll look better, I may even be more amicable at work. I could be that guy… the one that actually replies when people say, “You’re blocking the elevator.” No more noiseless shuffling for me. Things are looking up.

I may even learn to play kickball.

Strategic Exercising during Study Season by Katrine Pertsovski, ACAS

As I write this article, it's a beautiful and sunny July day outside. While most of my friends are making beach and camping plans, I realize that the short study-free period between spring exam sitting and the start of the new study season is almost over and I should be going back to my "days sitting at my desk at work / evenings studying at home" routine. My friends may be talking about the need to frequent the gym to get themselves beach-ready, but I should probably skip exercise altogether as not to squander any of my precious time. While it's widely known that exercise has a number of positive physical effects on our bodies, would it really be worth it wasting hours that I could devote to doing more practice problems or re-reading that particularly difficult paper on the exam syllabus by going to the gym? Those 400+ study hours are not just going to log themselves in, right?

A year or so ago I was wondering the same question, so I decided to investigate. Some research online revealed that we need exercise for much more than just weight loss and those toned abs. A number of studies showed that exercise improves our ability to learn and to remember… Ok, you got my attention… According to John Ratey, a Harvard Medical School psychiatrist and the author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, exercise increases the level of brain chemicals called growth factors, which help create new brain cells as well as establish new connections between them to make us learn. Other scientists like Dr. Schmidt-Kassow, a professor at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany, explain the beneficial effects of exercise on memory by saying that exercise leads to physiological arousal, which primes the brain for the intake of new information and the encoding of that information into memories… Hmmm, maybe exercising will help me better remember some of those obscure Feldblum notes… Finally, some other studies have shown that exercise has a positive effect on students' test scores. In a study performed in 2011 by the scientists of the Nemours Foundation using students in grades 1 - 6 at an academically low-scoring school in Charleston, S.C. as subjects, the scientists increased the amount of physical activities these kids were exposed to from 40 minutes a week to 40 minutes a day 5 days a week. The percentage of these students who were able to pass their standardized exams after the study increased from 50% to 68.5%... Sign me up for anything that will help me pass my exams!

Convinced that exercise may not just be a waste of time but may actually help me with my actuarial studies, I decided to get on the exercise bandwagon. It's important to do everything in your power that will help you pass your exam, right? Forgetting my last hesitations, I signed up to run my first marathon while studying for an actuarial exam. The decision to run a 26.2 mile race without any proper prior running experience may have been a bit insane, but I figured I'd just go all in. I was hoping that the discipline required for both training for a marathon and preparing for an actuarial exam would make it easier for me to achieve both goals when doing them together. Initially, my plan was working well. I woke up earlier on the weekends to run the required miles and then used all the energy and excitement I had after my workouts to study for my exam afterwards. I felt like I was super productive and that made me happy! Even those long study sessions didn't seem as dreadful and boring as before. Good thing I saw all those studies on the importance of exercise!

Unfortunately, this initial state of euphoria and efficiency didn't last long. As my training progressed and the number of miles I had to run every week increased, my enthusiasm subsided and was quickly replaced by a constant feeling of fatigue that extended into my studying as well. I seemed to remember much less from the readings and problems that I was trying to master. Studying became a chore that I dreaded. All I wanted to do after coming home from work or from my workouts was to eat insane amounts of pasta and go to sleep. But then what were all those research findings about? However, everything wasn’t as black and white all the time. I noticed that my studying seemed much easier during some weeks versus others, no matter what part of the syllabus I was on. I realized there was a pattern. My marathon training schedule was structured to have periods of two weeks of rising intensity and number of miles, followed by a drop-back week. The latter is always incorporated into marathon training plans to let the body recuperate and reenergize before increasing the difficulty of workouts and number of miles again. During those drop-back weeks, I was able to study much more efficiently - I was able to get through more material and to remember it better. Well, of course! My body needed a break from all the physical and mental challenges I was subjecting it to and was reacting much more positively when I allowed it some breaks. As everything else in life, exercise is also only good when it’s used in moderation. If exercise is too strenuous on the body, the body utilizes all its resources on trying to cope with the added stress and thus has no energy left to store the incoming new information. Point taken! Not all types of exercise could be used as a study aid - workouts have to be light-intensity to be able to positively impact learning.

Another interesting observation that I was able to make was that the timing of exercise sessions mattered too. My training schedule called for 3 days per week of running outside and another 2 days per week of cross training. While I was encouraged to do any type of workouts other than running on my cross training days, I frequently found myself on a bike or elliptical at the gym. Since I usually came by myself, I often brought some of my exam notes or flashcards along. It seemed that I was able to recall the material that I read while exercising much better than the material that I went over elsewhere. Turns out, some scientists were also wondering whether there was a correlation between studying while exercising and improved memory formation. In early 2013, a group of German scientists in Goethe University in Frankfurt led by Dr. Schmidt-Kassow performed a study to figure this out. Their subjects were subdivided into 3 groups and asked to listen to lists of paired words – one in their native German, another in unfamiliar Polish. The first group listened to these words after sitting quietly in a room for 30 minutes, the second group did the same activity after riding a stationary bike for 30 minutes, while the third group did the same while riding a bike. The subjects in the third group were able to recall the pairs of words the best, while the subjects in the first group performed the worst. Thus, exercising during learning is more effective than exercising beforehand and definitely much more effective than not exercising at all. Based on this study, my initial hunch was correct - bringing my studying with me to the gym actually helped me study. And, I was able to log additional study hours while getting fit!

In conclusion, exercise is important since it can not only improve your physical shape and self-image, but it may also help your professional life by improving your performance on the actuarial exams. However, if, like most actuarial students, you only have a limited amount of time, you should be strategic about how and when you exercise. To reap the most benefits of your exercise sessions, remember to plan numerous, light-intensity workouts. Additionally, don't forget to bring some syllabus readings or flashcards with you when you hit the gym to maximize the exercise-induced memory formation. But, above all, don't just dismiss exercise as a waste of time - it will definitely help you, probably in more ways than one. Good Luck!


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