Can diet and exercise improve your child’s learning abilities?

By Grantly Neely on 12th Jan 2020

As the founder of Granite Test Prep, an education consulting and college readiness company Grantly Neely talks with students about tests scores: what they mean, how to raise them, and whether or not they even matter. In this article he looks at the role proper physical exercise can play in improving school performance

It is common for students to excel in school, yet struggle when it comes to test taking. In these cases, the solution can often be to get a tutor; however, when test grades don’t improve or ACT scores don’t increase, students can become disheartened and lose confidence. Teachers may tell families things like: “your student is doing her/his work and understands the concepts, I’m not sure why s/he is struggling so much on our tests.” Or a student will be consistently performing academically, only to perform far below expectation on national standardized tests (PSAT/SAT/ACT), in spite of prep courses, tutors, and practice tests. At this point it is only fair to wonder: If I am working hard, why am I not getting the score I want?

For many students, this unfortunate gap between understanding and “performance” is a product of our preparation methods. Tutors, review books, teachers, and even well intentioned YouTubers, typically focus exclusively on the test content, completely ignoring the reality that performance on tests is driven just as much by an understanding of test content as it is by the “intangibles of test taking”. It is likely these “intangibles” are so frequently ignored that you might not even know what I mean. At Granite Test Prep we are fascinated with these test taking intangibles and typically focus on two major intangibles: the ability to stay focused through the entire duration of an exam and the ability to stay calm when an exam is not going exactly as we like. Our focus, calm, and confidence vary naturally from day to day. Accepting these as key variables on test taking success, we often attribute undesired scores to these intangibles. It is not uncommon for parents to sympathetically say: “don’t worry honey – you just had an off day!” Still, this consolation leaves students with a question: why did I have an “off-day” and how can I have more “on-days”?

Our focus, calm, and confidence vary naturally from day to day. Accepting these as key variables on test taking success, we often attribute undesired scores to these intangibles.

Fortunately the above question has an answer! There are many exercises and strategies that are designed specifically to help test takers have more on-days. These exercises help build up focus or calm, depending on a student’s need. Therefore, if you struggle to demonstrate what you know on exams and tests, practicing mindfulness might be a great place to start. It is important to remember that mindfulness is a skill and an exercise, while some benefits can be experienced in only a couple days, most of them don’t start to show up for a few months. If you want to try a simple meditation one of our favorites is outlined below:

Find a comfortable seat and sit upright
Close your eyes
Take a couple deep breaths
Notice any sounds or scents in the room
Notice the ground beneath your feet
Notice what your breath is doing (don’t change it – just notice)
Begin counting your breath 1 on the in breath 2 on the out breath (again we aren’t trying to control or influence our breath just gently count)
Once you reach a count of 6 start back at 1
If you notice your mind wanders just bring it back to whatever number you last remember being on. No need to feel frustrated with yourself, simply bring your attention back to your breath; you are building the “focus muscle” of your brain. Every time you get distracted and focus back on your breath you have done a “brain pull-up”
After 10 mins is complete open your eyes and go about your day!

Considering what you eat is also very important when thinking about test performance. Cutting-edge scientific research shows the importance of nutrition in supporting the focus and calm needed for academic performance. Many student’s struggle with long tests simply because they don’t bring any snacks. Rapid changes in blood sugar level can wreak havoc on our ability to focus. Accordingly, keeping a steady energy level by eating small snacks during all breaks can be extremely helpful to test takers. These snacks should be high in protein and low glycemic index. High glycemic foods (white bread, candy, soda) can cause crashes and subsequent brain fog. The world of nutrition for academic performance is complicated things like fiber, probiotics, and fat also have critical implications on how our brains work.

When evaluating how test taking intangibles affect our performance on standardized tests it can be tempting to feel overwhelmed thinking: “I have to change my entire lifestyle just to do well on tests!” That is absolutely not the case! Small changes can have huge impacts on test scores, so just choose a couple intangibles that resonate with you and work on those.

About the author: Grantly Neely is a certified KORU mindfulness teacher, founder of Granite Test Prep For more information: If you have any questions about the world of test prep feel free to reach out to Grantly at

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