Ten ways to get more oxygen to power your learning

This post is a response to an article published on the Wired website today, which stipulates that inhaling pure oxygen helps you learn motor skills faster (https://dx.doi.org/10.3389/fnins.2023.1175649). That's good news for anyone with regular, affordable access to pure oxygen and to means of administering it. If you're like most of us, though, you'll be wondering if these findings are of any use to you.

Here are ten ways to look after your oxygen supply to power your learning.

  1. Quit smoking / vaping. This has got to be my first piece of advice, and I want you to trust me on this - I spent over 2 decades as a heavy smoker. Asking your lungs to provide you with oxygen while asking them to recover from inflammation, irritation and degradation is like asking any person to work two shifts at once - unsustainable. Quit smoking or vaping, and your lungs can start doing their jobs.
  2. Start a meditation habit. This doesn't need to involve going deep into the philosophy/religion aspects. Sitting down for 10 minutes and focusing on your breath will help you notice what happens when your body tries to breathe. It's much less "automatic" than you thought, and becoming aware of this will help you correct your posture when you breathe.
  3. Stand when you learn. Depending on your preferences and context, it might be possible for you to do some of your learning away from your seat. If you can stand at your desk, that's awesome! It'll mean that you resist the temptation to hunch your shoulders or otherwise restrict airflow. Being able to stand upright means that your lungs have more space to expand = more oxygen.
  4. Get your chair adjusted. If you can't stand up while working or learning, there are still things you can do. Many colleges or workplaces will give you a chance to get your setup adjusted, so its ergonomics improves. This mainly helps your eyes and your spine - but by letting you sit in a more relaxed and comfortable position, it also opens up your breathing. Oxygen win!
  5. Drink enough water. Surprising, isn't it? If your body doesn't get enough water, plenty of things start working worse than usual. According to medical trials (https://doi.org/10.1152/JAPPL.1980.49.4.715), one of these things is the way your cardiac output and thermal regulations. With less water, your heart can't pump enough blood to ensure the oxygen gets everywhere it needs to get.
  6. Move. Look, you knew this one was coming. I'm not going to quote research this time, because you know this one to be true: moving about gets your heart rate up, which in turn gets the oxygenated blood around your body more effectively. We're not talking marathons, either. Walking 2 more bus stops to your class, or getting into a light but regular exercise habit - these will do.
  7. Have a nap. This idea doesn't get talked about as often at my gym! But it's true - napping has lots of benefits. It's recently been shown to help preserve brain volume in older adults (https://doi.org/10.1016/j.sleh.2023.05.002). Getting pure oxygen into a shrinking brain sounds like a losing game to me - getting good air into a big, healthy brain, though...?
  8. Learn outdoors if the air is better there. Sadly, I can't guarantee that this idea will work every time. My home town is a bad place to try this, especially in the winter months - the air quality is just too poor then. But if you know that you can breathe some fresh air and take your study outside - go ahead and do just that.
  9. Check your stress levels. None of the above will do much good if you try to learn while stressed out. Being nervous or anxious means that our breathing becomes rapid and shallow, and our body tenses up, as if expecting an attack. This is how our organism tries to protect us - but this state is not supposed to last forever, and its side effect is that it burns through available oxygen like there's no tomorrow. What can you do to make sure your learning sessions are less stressful?
  10. Keep cool. This is related to point 5 above. Messing up with our body temperature means that we can't function well. Heat stress means that our brains can't get the oxygen in, or clear the waste out, fast enough. Especially these days, keeping cool is the best way to keep working.

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