This is an interesting question. As a bodybuilder, I have been studying nutrition and sleep for years. I believe that many of the principals bodybuilders use to promote peak physical performance can be carried over to test prep.
Bodybuilders build their nutrition and sleep regimens around the ability to increase their intensity in the gym. Without going into a lot of details, intensity correlates very well with mental endurance. I will post some portions of articles I have written on these topics. This may seem a bit like those science RCs we all love. However, these will actually have relevance to your GMAT prep.
If you're studying for a test such as the GMAT I recommend the following:
1) Establish a habitual circadian rhythm - a steady sleeping pattern.
In summary of the sleep cycle, there are five distinct sleep stages that can be measured by polysomnography:
Sleep includes two important segments: 1. Non-rapid eye movement (NREM) sleep and 2. Rapid eye movement (REM) sleep. These phases alternate in cycles about every 90 to 110 minutes. This cycle is repeated an average of 4 to 6 times per night.
NREM, also called the "quiet state", can be broken down into several smaller stages:
• Stage 1: Transitional stage; no recovery or restorative value. Small brain waves are produced, the muscles of the body relax, and breathing becomes smooth.
• Stage 2: Beginning to drift into sound sleep; fragmented thoughts; images pass through mind; can't see, even if eyes open. Bodily functions continue to slow and larger, slower brain waves are produced.
• Stages 3 & 4: Delta or slow wave sleep; deepest sleep; restorative sleep. True rest is achieved, as the brain produces its slowest, largest waves, called delta waves, critical for physical rejuvenation. Stage 4 is the deepest, most restorative sleep stage. Mental recovery; blood directed to brain. Growth hormones, protein synthesis, immune function maintenance.
REM sleep, the important sleep phase where dreaming occurs, occupies 20-25% of a normal sleep period. REM is the most critical time for mental rejuvenation.
It's important to understand that the patterns we adhere to each day are not a subliminal reaction to the world around us. They are biological; driven by an internal chronometer. The principal essence of man’s internal clock is found in the suprachiasmatic nuclei (SCN), a cluster of about 10,000 neurons positioned on either side of the optic chiasma, approximately 3 cm behind the eyes.
Studies have demonstrated that, in spite of prolonged episodes of isolation and deprivation of external time cues, individuals continue to display daily cycles of core temperature, sleepiness, and alertness. The regulator controlling these functions is slightly adaptable; therefore, the measurable rhythms free run with periods of slightly less than or greater than one solar day, hence the term circadian, meaning approximately one day.
Due to the SCN (also called the “master pacemaker of the circadian rhythm”) and its propensity to adhere to the environmental cues around us, there is a natural partiality to sleep when it is dark and to become active when it is light.
Chronobiological patterns have an effect on both physiology and motor skills. The physiological factors affected consist of power, speed, strength, and endurance. Influenced motor skills include coordination and reaction time.
Additionally, a trough in one’s chronobiological rhythm can have the undesired effect of decreased levels of concentration, focus, motivation, mental endurance, and threshold for pain.
The sleep-wake cycle is not simply driven by the circadian pacemaker found in the SCN, but also through interactions of circadian rhythmicity, known as the homeostatic component.
The homeostatic component consists of a sleep-wake oscillatory process as well as circadian photoreception. The concept of a variation throughout the solar day of physiological and psychological variables is not a novel concept. Daily alteration in body temperature was first noted in 1778, and observation of circadian rhythms in plants was noted hundreds of years ago by French astronomer Jacques d'Ortuous de Marian. These time-reliant variations are called circadian rhythms.
"Thanks Adam for the long-winded RC, but what does that have to do with GMAT prep?"....
Go to bed and wake up at the same time each day.
If you're on track, you won't need an alarm clock to wake up. This may mean not staying out all night on Saturday for a few months while you prep for your GMAT. Emperical and antecdotal research have confirmed that a habitual sleep pattern is optimal for peak performance. Athletes have been doing this for years to gain an extra edge over their competition. Also, practice your GMAT drills at the same time each day (if at all possible). In addition, practice your prep exams at the same time you will take your actual exam. So, if you schedule your GMAT for 10:00 am, take your practice exams at that same time.
I recommend establishing a sleep pattern AND then scheduling your exam time.
Studies have confirmed that twelve hours after the middle of your night's sleep there is a natural dip in your circadian rhythm. This is not the ideal time to train, study or take an exam.
Many people in many cultures nap every day some time between one and four in the afternoon, and studies show that the human body is inclined to rest in the afternoon as well as at night. There is a drop in body temperature and alertness in the afternoon that is smaller but very similar to what occurs at night. The afternoon drop occurs approximately twelve hours after the middle of your night's sleep.
I also recommend taking ZMA prior to sleeping. ZMA is a product that combines Zinc, Magnesium, and vitamin B6. ZMA has been used by bodybuilders for years to promote deep REM sleep to enhance mental and physical recovery. You can purchase ZMA or you can simply make your own with basic vitamins you can buy at the store. If folks are interested, I'll be glad to explain how. With a few weeks of use you will notice you are more alert and have more energy and mental endurance. Sleep deprivation affects our ability to remember, handle complex tasks, think logically, assimilate and analyze new information, make decisions, communicate, and think creatively-all of which are critical skill sets for performing our best on the GMAT or any complex task in life.
Here is an interesting quote from Dr. Maas (professor and past chairman, Department of Psychology, Cornell University, a renowned sleep expert). He says that "often we are totally unaware of our own reduced capabilities because we become habituated to low levels of alertness." We can become so "used" too little sleep that we don’t even know we aren’t performing at our max!
2) Diet and exercise
My friend is conducting research at FSU which demonstrates regular exercise increases brain power. The article is currently in review and will be published soon. However, I can assure you a plethora of research has shown that physical fitness has an affect on mental ability.
Regarding nutrition, increase your fruit and vegetable intake and take a multi-vitamin daily. Also, space your meals out. Most individuals consume three large meals per day. As you prep for your GMAT, caloric efficiency should be your goal. Aim for 5-7 smaller meals per day. Your body is able to more easily assimilate smaller meals and use the nutrients from the foods more efficiently. Eating several smaller meals will also stabalize your insulin levels which in turn will increase your energy levels and mental abilities.
There are several supplements on the market which may
increase circulation in the brain. The most popular is Ginkgo Biloba. I have used this supplement and feel it does affect my ability to recall information. I don't "feel smarter" per say, but I notice I am able to recall facts and make logical connections faster and will less mental effort. Ginkgo appears to have a tapering affect, in other words if used consistently its potency is reduced. I recommend only using it every few days or so. Say you take a practice test once per week. I'd recommend using it then.
Also, a bit about practice tests…In addition to taking your practice exams at the same time as your real exam, mimic the actual test environment as much as possible. Context Specificity suggests that the transfer between performing a task in two environments will be proportional to the similarity of those environments. This is thought to be due to associations made between the task and incidental stimuli. Incidental stimuli are stimuli which are not necessary to perform the task, but that have the ability to serve as a cue to retrieve the information needed to perform the task in a given situation. This partially explains the home field advantage phenomenon. The point is that in the environment are several cues. For example, when playing in a football game, the goal post, the way the seating is arranged, or countless other elements could serve as cues to arouse information. Therefore practice should attempt to mimic the environment of the criterion task. When competing in a show, a bodybuilder would benefit from performing his or her posing routine in the same building that they will perform in for the show. If this cannot be done, then a similar stage would suffice. The hockey player who has tryouts in rink A, should practice as much as possible in rink A before tryouts, and the same occurs for all sporting events.
Some of these recommendations may seem obsessive compulsive, however, as I've said before, those scoring in the 700 range do just a bit more than the rest of us. I think it's important to remember that, at the end of the day, the GMAT is a competition. Techniques to keep you mentally sharp can give you the edge over your competition. For some of us, taking sleep, diet, and exercise under consideration may be the extra edge we need to step up our game and score those extra points.