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Nutrition, Exercise Can Help You Score Better on Tests

My son Will, a junior at Gunn High School in Palo Alto, is preparing for the treaded SAT tests by taking a class at Foothill College. Like most test preparation classes, this one focuses primarily on the cognitive and test-taking skills necessary to get through the ordeal. But the instructor, Norman Prince, has added a twist — test taking nutrition, exercise and relaxation routines.

Prince, who is an adjunct professor of English at Skyline College, doesn’t consider himself to be a health and fitness expert but he is passing on knowledge he acquired from the work of Dr. Andrew Wiles, Dr. Dean Ornish, Deborah Kesten and other diet and nutrition experts.

Prince argues that doing well on tests is not just a matter of knowing the material (though that is certainly necessary) but also your state of mind and your general condition as you sit down for the test. While his work applies to adolescents taking tests, the same theories also apply to the rest of us. Being in the right state of mind and body can have an impact on everything we do.

Prince cautions students to try to “relax and enjoy yourself” the night before a test but enjoying oneself does not mean consuming large quantities of food. He recommends a “light healthful” dinner that “should be not much larger than the size of your closed fist which is the size of your stomach.” I’m not convinced that a pre-test meal should be quite that small, but I do agree that stuffing yourself prior to a mental ordeal is generally a bad idea. For example, I am occasionally called on as a luncheon or dinner speaker and I never eat much just prior to my speech for fear that I’ll fall asleep or, at the very least, wind up spilling something on my shirt. Seriously, it’s no accident that some cultures take naps after lunch. Digesting large amounts of food takes energy which is fine if you have time for a siesta but not if you need to perform mentally.

By the same token, starving right before a test or any other mental exertion is also a big mistake. Your brain needs food as does the rest of your body. Prince recommends a portion of “quality protein about the size of a deck of cards” such as 3 to 4 ounces of chicken, fish or soy protein. White meat chicken or turkey is best, avoiding as much fat as possible. It’s a good idea to have some complex carbohydrates such as whole grains and vegetables, but — again — avoid stuffing yourself.

Candy and other foods that contain sugar can give you a quick burst of energy but the problem is that they can also let you down fairly quickly. Prince says to avoid them completely. My advice is to use them sparingly if you use them at all but definitely not before the test. A small piece of candy or a small cookie in the middle of a test can be a quick “pick me up” as long as it’s consumed close enough to the end of the ordeal that you’re not likely to get a let down. A better choice is fruit snacks such as cut up apples or pears. Dried apricots or raisins are more convenient but a bit more candy-like because of a higher concentration of natural sugars.

There is controversy about caffeine. Most of the “healthy eating” advocates like Andrew Weil will argue that it’s stress producing and generally bad for you. That’s probably true — caffeine can increase your jitters, especially if you’re already nervous about the test, but it also stimulates your nervous system and “wakes you up” which can be beneficial. The important thing is to take it in moderation, if at all, and not so far before the test that the effects wear off midstream, leaving you more tired that you would have been had you not used caffeine.

Having said this, it is important to note that there are other opinions out that. The Michigan State University Counseling Center’s web site advises that you have a “moderate breakfast, no caffeine” and suggests that you “bring hard candy to the exam.”

Personally, I think it’s best to avoid caffeine, especially for kids, but I admit that I drink a cup of coffee every morning and it seems to help jump start my day, as long as I don’t let it get out of hand.

Getting a good night’s sleep before an exam is very important and probably more useful than whatever advantage you’ll get from last minute cramming. I think it’s often necessary and even OK to work late into the night finishing a paper, but studying is a different matter because sleep deprivation can affect your performance the next day when it counts. Prince recommends that you try to get to bed by 10:00 PM the night before a morning test. He says to avoid watching, listening to or even reading the news in the evening which is probably a good idea especially if what you’re watching is war coverage. He also suggests a slice of plain bread a half hour before bedtime as well as a warm bath. Sounds soothing to me.

Regular exercise is good for all sorts of things including being in good shape to take tests but you probably shouldn’t do something strenuous the day of the exam also exercise is great during breaks as you study in the days prior to the exam. On the day of the exam, you should definitely do whatever you can to relax yourself including deep breathing, yoga, stretches and other relaxation exercises.

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