How Long Do I Need to Exercise to Ace the Exam?

The effect that exercise has on the brain is finally starting to gain some ground.  Thanks to John Ratey, and countless other researchers, we now have a growing body of scientific evidence that exercise can improve cognition, mood, sleep, mental health symptoms, and many other brain related issues.  As an educator, I am always interested in promoting exercise as a tool for being a successful student.  That’s why I was so excited to see the following study in the January, 2015 issue of Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise.

Researches at National Taiwan University of Physical Education and Sport recruited 26 healthy males between the ages of 20-22 to participate in a study that aimed to provide evidence based recommendations for a single exercise session that could enhance cognitive function.  We know that exercise can help, but how much, and at what intensity?  That is what the study set out to explore.

Researchers had participants randomly assigned to 10, 20, and 45 minute exercise sessions  at moderate intensity, which was monitored using heart rate and rating of perceived exertion.  All exercise protocols included a 5 minute warm up and a 5 minute cool down.  The authors used a Stroop test within 5 minutes of exercise completion to examine cognitive function.  The researchers concluded that exercise at a moderate intensity for 20 minutes resulted in significantly better cognitive performance, measured by shorter response time and higher accuracy on the Stroop test.

Although this is a small sample, it’s a place to start. Now when I tell my students to exercise prior to studying, going to class, or taking an exam, I have some evidence when I tell them to:

  • Warm up for 5 minutes
  • Exercise at a moderate intensity for 20 minutes
  • Cool down for 5 minutes.


Chang, Y., Chu, C., Wang, C., Want, Y., Song, T., Tsai, C., & Etnier, J. (2015). Dose-Response Relation between Exercise Duration and Cognition. Medicine & Science in Sport and Exercise, 47(1), 159-165.

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