The 8 Best Things to do During Study Breaks14 min read

Published by Zach on

So, are there ways to maximize study breaks? Are there things to do during a study break that improve studying? That improve mindset? That improve wellbeing? Well, I did the research, and the answer is yes to all.

In this post, I’ll give you eight things to do during your breaks, from worst to best.

Before we get into it, I want to reiterate that it is vital to stick to your study and break timing. Suppose you set a specific break time but don’t stick to it. In that case, you keep relaxing beyond your allotted break time and it creates an awful procrastination conditioning feedback loop that eliminates the entire benefit of the study-break method (Pomodoro).

8. Watch a YouTube video

YouTube videos are often perfectly timed for your breaks. However, they are ranked worst in my list of things to do during breaks because you are just looking at a screen again. Also, if the video is longer than the break time, it is easy to fall into the trap of just finishing the video.

If you use this strategy, which I often do, at least get up and move to a different position, watch the video on another device and strictly adhere to your break time. Seriously, comply with the break time. If it’s a 10-minute video and you only have a 5-minute break, watch half during this break and half during the next break.

Watching a YouTube video isn’t a lousy option entirely because it switches your brain off for a certain amount of time (depending on the video). I wouldn’t watch a video that requires much mental effort. The goal is to take a break, remember.

Bottom Line: Change positions, change devices, and watch a YouTube video within the time of the break.

7. Have a Short Nap

Naps have been proven to improve cognitive performance. Specifically, according to the paper I read, 5-15 minutes is the sweet spot. Once you get past 30 minutes, however, your body has shifted into a deeper phase of sleep, creating sleep that worsens your performance immediately after the nap.1. This is one of the main reasons I have ranked this break strategy so low, I find this a dangerous option because I will often fall asleep for too long and either miss my break time entirely (bad) or screw up my sleep-wake cycle for the day (really bad).

If you use this strategy, make sure to set a timer for 5-10 minutes and wake up at the end of those five-ten minutes. Also, I drink a large glass of cold water after waking up which always helps.

Bottom Line: Take a 5-10 minute nap.

6. Clean Up

A clean workspace can improve focus and performance. One study looked at 13 medical students and surgery residents and had them perform laparoscopic surgery via a virtual reality trainer, with some having a distraction and others not. Not surprisingly, the distracted surgeons took 30-40% longer to perform the surgery.2 Another study had people drive in a simulator and added visual distractions to certain participants; distracted drivers had significantly worse performance with driving maneuvers.3 Fewer distractions may mean improved performance. So clean up that workspace.

Also, when I am cleaning up, I just try to clean up. I don’t listen to music or a podcast; I clean up. If I am doing the dishes, I try and focus on the feeling of the hot water, listen to the sounds of the city, or try and notice the smell of my lemon dish soap. My studying is just computer computer computer so anything to get away from technology, even for a little bit, helps me come back to my studying that much better.

The most important thing to clean is your work area. So, if this is my first “clean break” of the day, I will take that time to clean up my desk. That means removing old coffee mugs, granola bar wrappers, pieces of paper, anything directly in my eye-line. Because, as mentioned in the articles above, even though we think these things aren’t interfering with our performance, they are.

Bottom Line: Clean up your desk first, then the rest of your space.

5. Meditate

Putting your body in a different spot, taking a seat, and just focusing on counting your breaths for five minutes does magic. Sometimes, during exams, I’ll even take this meditation break. I really will just sit there and close my eyes and sit back. A proctor once poked me because she was worried I was asleep; some students look at me funny sometimes, but it helps me, and, most importantly, it helps me perform better.

People who meditate are less stressed and people who are stressed perform worse on exams.4-6 In one study, 25 subjects had their brain activity and antibody titers measured after an 8-week mindfulness meditation training program. Both groups were vaccinated with the influenza vaccine at the end of the eight weeks. The result? Significant increases in antibody titers were noted in the meditation group versus the non-meditation group, and the meditation group had significant increases in left-sided anterior brain activation.7 Meditation can do crazy things (in a good way).

Also, this short-form meditation is a great way to get your feet wet on the fantastic thing that is meditation. I’ve meditated for about three years now, and I can say it’s one of the few things that has actually changed my life.

Bottom Line: Meditate

4. Grab a GOOD Snack

Let’s talk about glucose and the crash. Big carbs? Big sugar? Big burn? Big crash. Bad news. Slow carbs? High protein? Good news.8

Let’s take a look at what happens when you have a high carb meal, a meal with a high glycemic index, vs. having a meal with a low glycemic index:

Ok, notice the part where the glucose dips below this line? That’s terrible news, that’s the crash, that’s hurting your studying ability! Also, the high is sometimes too high. It’s hard to focus. You want a slow burn; you want low glycemic index foods for your snack.

Unfortunately, keeping your glucose levels in control, as many people with diabetes are all too familiar with, is vital to your well-being and focus while you study.

Beyond that, importantly, we need to eat. Guess what the most metabolically active part of your body is? The brain! Accounting for 20% of our total oxygen metabolism.9 So please, for your brain’s sake, eat some snackage. We need to fuel it! Ever try to study on a day when you are fasting? It’s pretty tough. We need that energy, that ATP, to help build new neuronal connections, which some people believe studying is what memory is; just more neuronal connections.10

Here is another break session that includes drinking water. I like water. Recently I’m addicted to these sucky water bottles, they just seem fun to drink from. I hope it’s not like an oral fixation.

(my snack sessions nearly always include a water bottle filled with cold water, recently i’m addicted to these little sucky water bottles, i don’t know why) FUCK OFF FREUD (JOKE)

3. Change Position

Classical conditioning, it’s huge.

We want to associate our studying with a study location and our relaxing with a relaxing place.

I always do certain things in a certain place:

  • Studying at my desk
  • YouTube work at the table
  • Sleeping in my bed
  • Relaxing on the couch

This is the same reason why sleep experts say only sleep in your bed; if when you are in your bed, you only sleep, then, over time, your body will learn that your bed means sleep and not another 3-hour Netflix session.

When I take my break, I make sure to change positions where I am taking the break. This way, I know in this new position it is chill time; in this other position, it is work time. I never watch YouTube videos or do non-study things in my study spot; that would be bad news on the classical conditioning front. When I come back to work, my “break” activity or item is always halted before I sit back at my “work” desk. When I sit at my “work” desk, it’s work time.

Bottom Line: Only study in your study spot.

2. Mini-Exercise

Exercise improves your ability to remember and learn information; it’s that simple.

Molecules such as IGF-1 are released during exercise that may be responsible for the maintenance ofmaintaining brain cells and is also directly related to spatial learning and memory.11,12 Another molecule, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a major modulator of brain plasticity, is also released more during exercise than non-exercise.13 Evidence shows that activity, in humans and mice, increased hippocampal neurogenesis (the part of our brain responsible for memory), cell proliferation, and dendritic branching.14-16

Also, exercise is proven to reduce stress and anxiety, and studies show stress and anxiety past a certain point hinder performance.17

The great thing about this is the duration of certain exercises can be whatever you want, and it doesn’t need to be a tough exercise. During breaks, I will often stretch or lay down or just hang from my pull-up bar. My go to’s are:

  • Push-ups
  • Sit-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • Planks
  • Various Yoga Poses

Anecdotally, there’s something rejuvenating about getting your heart pumping. Want to take this to another level? Do some exercise outside! Whenever I have a long session of studying planned, I always plan a workout smack-dab in the middle of the study session. Why? As explained, this exercise will improve my studying afterward and help me remember more information.

When I first started medical school, I thought I had to put every waking hour into studying to do well on my tests; this is medical school, after all, right? However, what I quickly found out was that I was burning out. I wasn’t focusing; I wasn’t studying like I usually do. I was going on my phone or searching random things on the internet.

I didn’t perform as well as I thought I could. In my first couple of tests, I didn’t take care of myself. I made a change. I prioritized my well-being and exercise, sleeping, meditating, and relaxing, and, guess what, I studied less and performed better. This realization is one of the reasons I made my YouTube channel in the first place because I wish wish WISH someone had told me about this earlier. Mental and physical well-being are strongly assosciated with performance. YOU are important, your well-being is essential, and, what most people will care about, your performance is better when your health is better; it’s that simple.

Bottom Line: Any form of exercise is a top-tip for study breaks.

1. Go Outside

We’ve made it the number one top tip. The thing I think is the absolute best thing you can do during your study breaks, and, guess what, it’s going outside! This is backed by evidence, and, anecdotally, it is the best break for me.

Nature exposure improves human cognitive function and mental health.18, 19 With the rapid pace of urbanization, it seems, globally, humans are having less contact with nature. Nature exposure and test performance hasn’t been studied. However, the effects of time in nature and mental health has been studied extensively. The evidence is clear; to a certain point, more time in green space is better than less time in green space for mental well-being. Furthermore, who do you think will study better, someone who has good mental health or someone who has poor mental health?

In 2019, Nature released an article that took nearly 20,000 adults and examined their time in nature. They found that at least 120 minutes outside was linked with significantly greater reports of good health or high well-being, with peak associations between 200-300 mins per week.19 So, if you are studying at 9 hours a day, that involves around 140 minutes of break time per day, so, theoretically, you could hit that outside time in two days I like to spend one break a day outside.

I usually save this break for when I have my longer 20-minute intervals to take a walk. Again, importantly, I am not listening to music, podcasts, or looking at my phone during this walk. I am just walking around, preferably in a green space.

Bottom Line: Take break, enjoy nature, come back, study better than ever.

Of course, this isn’t the end all be all. After reading this post, you should know the basics behind a “good” break. That is, outside, exercise, and no screens. Some things I didn’t mention that I do include playing an instrument, playing with a pet, talking on the phone with a friend, listening to a radio show, having a cup of tea, staring out the window, fighting a ghost psychologist and this list goes on…

My favorite thing is mixing and matching these strategies during my study times. So my day might look something like this:

  • 25-minute study
  • Continue immediately into another 25 minutes study session
  • 10-minute clean apartment
  • 25-minute study
  • 5-minute snack (apple) and hot drink (tea)
  • 25-minute study
  • 20-minute break go for a nice walk outside
  • 25-minute study
  • 5-minute exercise
  • 25-minute study
  • 5-minute exercise
  • 25-minute study
  • 5-minute snack while looking out the window
  • 25-minute study
  • 10-minute stretch and 10-minute meditation
  • and so on…

The most important thing is to stick to something that works for you, that makes you feel refreshed, and that allows you to strictly adhere to the work/break intervals.

Work Cited

  1. Lovato N, Lack L. The effects of napping on cognitive functioning. Prog Brain Res. 2010;185:155-66. doi: 10.1016/B978-0-444-53702-7.00009-9. PMID: 21075238.
  2. Hughes MA, Swan L, Taylor CL, Ilin R, Partridge R, Brennan PM. The Impact of Novel Nontechnical Stressors (Visual and Auditory) on Simulated Laparoscopic Task Performance Among Surgeons and Students. J Laparoendosc Adv Surg Tech A. 2022 Feb;32(2):189-196. doi: 10.1089/lap.2021.0695. Epub 2021 Dec 2. PMID: 34860611.
  3. Zhang Y, Kaber DB, Rogers M, Liang Y, Gangakhedkar S. The effects of visual and cognitive distractions on operational and tactical driving behaviors. Hum Factors. 2014 May;56(3):592-604. doi: 10.1177/0018720813495279. PMID: 24930178.
  4. Peterson, Linda Gay, and Lori Pbert. “Effectiveness of a meditation-based stress reduction program in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” Am J Psychiatry 149.7 (1992): 936-943.
  5. Miller, John J., Ken Fletcher, and Jon Kabat-Zinn. “Three-year follow-up and clinical implications of a mindfulness meditation-based stress reduction intervention in the treatment of anxiety disorders.” General hospital psychiatry 17.3 (1995): 192-200.
  6. Chiesa A, Serretti A. Mindfulness-based stress reduction for stress management in healthy people: a review and meta-analysis. J Altern Complement Med. 2009 May;15(5):593-600. doi: 10.1089/acm.2008.0495. PMID: 19432513.
  7. Davidson RJ, Kabat-Zinn J, Schumacher J, Rosenkranz M, Muller D, Santorelli SF, Urbanowski F, Harrington A, Bonus K, Sheridan JF. Alterations in brain and immune function produced by mindfulness meditation. Psychosom Med. 2003 Jul-Aug;65(4):564-70. doi: 10.1097/01.psy.0000077505.67574.e3. PMID: 12883106.
  8. Brand-Miller J, Buyken AE. The Relationship between Glycemic Index and Health. Nutrients. 2020 Feb 19;12(2):536. doi: 10.3390/nu12020536. PMID: 32093020; PMCID: PMC7071350.
  9. Hyder F, Rothman DL, Bennett MR. Cortical energy demands of signaling and nonsignaling components in brain are conserved across mammalian species and activity levels. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 2013 Feb 26;110(9):3549-54. doi: 10.1073/pnas.1214912110. Epub 2013 Jan 14. PMID: 23319606; PMCID: PMC3587194.
  10. Amtul Z, Atta-Ur-Rahman. Neural plasticity and memory: molecular mechanism. Rev Neurosci. 2015;26(3):253-68. doi: 10.1515/revneuro-2014-0075. PMID: 25995328.
  11. Cassilhas RC, Tufik S, de Mello MT. Physical exercise, neuroplasticity, spatial learning and memory. Cell Mol Life Sci. 2016 Mar;73(5):975-83. doi: 10.1007/s00018-015-2102-0. Epub 2015 Dec 8. PMID: 26646070.
  12. Gomez-Pinilla F, Ying Z, Opazo P, Roy RR, Edgerton VR (2001) Differential regulation by exercise of BDNF and NT-3 in rat spinal cord and skeletal muscle. Eur J Neurosci 13:1078–1084
  13. Máderová D, Krumpolec P, Slobodová L, Schön M, Tirpáková V, Kovaničová Z, Klepochová R, Vajda M, Šutovský S, Cvečka J, Valkovič L, Turčáni P, Krššák M, Sedliak M, Tsai CL, Ukropcová B, Ukropec J. Acute and regular exercise distinctly modulate serum, plasma and skeletal muscle BDNF in the elderly. Neuropeptides. 2019 Dec;78:101961. doi: 10.1016/j.npep.2019.101961. Epub 2019 Aug 29. PMID: 31506171.
  14. Stranahan AM, Khalil D, Gould E (2006) Social isolation delays the positive effects of running on adult neurogenesis. Nat Neurosci 9:526–533
  15. van Praag H, Christie BR, Sejnowski TJ, Gage FH (1999) Running enhances neurogenesis, learning, and long-term potentiation in mice. Proc Natl Acad Sci 96:13427–13431
  16. van Praag H, Shubert T, Zhao C, Gage FH (2005) Exercise enhances learning and hippocampal neurogenesis in aged mice. J Neurosci 25:8680–8685
  17. Lupien, Sonia J., and Bruce S. McEwen. “The acute effects of corticosteroids on cognition: integration of animal and human model studies.” Brain research reviews 24.1 (1997): 1-27.
  18. Bratman GN, Anderson CB, Berman MG, Cochran B, de Vries S, Flanders J, Folke C, Frumkin H, Gross JJ, Hartig T, Kahn PH Jr, Kuo M, Lawler JJ, Levin PS, Lindahl T, Meyer-Lindenberg A, Mitchell R, Ouyang Z, Roe J, Scarlett L, Smith JR, van den Bosch M, Wheeler BW, White MP, Zheng H, Daily GC. Nature and mental health: An ecosystem service perspective. Sci Adv. 2019 Jul 24;5(7):eaax0903. doi: 10.1126/sciadv.aax0903. PMID: 31355340; PMCID: PMC6656547.
  19. Bratman GN, Hamilton JP, Daily GC. The impacts of nature experience on human cognitive function and mental health. Ann N Y Acad Sci. 2012 Feb;1249:118-36. doi: 10.1111/j.1749-6632.2011.06400.x. Epub 2012 Feb 9. PMID: 22320203.


2 Comments

Gregory Yee · April 29, 2022 at 6:38 pm

I’m new to the Youtube space and it has been particularly intriguing to me how a lot of your videos are scientifically sourced. To be blunt, how does that process go? Do you think about a “study break tip”, and then go and search to see if there’s evidence? Do you casually read scientific articles for fun and then save some over time to use in later videos? You speak of time management as medical student — when do you get around to reading 20+ scientific articles for a single video on top of being a YouTube and medical student? SOS. Thanks.

    Zach · June 18, 2022 at 7:44 pm

    There is an unfortunate amount of confirmation bias going on in my research, yes. I usually have read a scientific article or heard from someone I trust about something cool in the world of studying or self-improvement, then I research it as unbiased as I can be; trying to learn about the different answers and what the evidence is for each answer. Then, after I have researched, I form my opinion and then find academic journals that support my opinions. Importantly, I only use primary literature and never use news articles or website posts as those usually make sweeping generalizations that usually are not true.

    Honestly, time is very hard to come by. I use bulking a lot which helps, so I will research four videos at one time, then maybe script four videos at one time, then record four videos at one time. Luckily, I have a video editor now which saves me a lot of time. Finally, I am in my fourth year of medical school now which is much more relaxed time wise. Hope that helps! good luck in school.

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