Sleep, diet and exercise habits are crucial for well-being and school success because they help maintain an important part of your brain – the hippocampus.

To remember this word, we break it down into: 

  • Hippo (imagine a hippopotamus)
  • Camp (picture a campsite)
  • The pronoun ‘us

Putting this all together gives us Hippo-camp-us.

Science suggests the hippocampus is the main part of the human brain that produces new brain cells. It turns out these new cells are very important for helping us to manage stress, and to learn new things such as solving different maths problems, new football skills or dance routines. Poor diet, exercise and sleep can lead to this area becoming damaged. That makes managing stress and learning more difficult than they need to be. 

Also, good exercise and a good diet help the brain to release a protein called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). This helps brain cells to grow and flourish, so we can manage stress and learn more with less effort. We think of good diet, exercise and sleep as the foundation for all of the following:

  • Better stress management.
  • Spending less time on unhelpful thoughts.
  • Performing well in exams under pressure.
  • Being productive to drive creativity and innovation.
  • Building and maintaining robust levels of confidence.
  • Better leadership for improved individual and team performance

How can I help my pupils to improve their sleep, diet and exercise habits? 

We teach people a process to help them build new sleep, diet and exercise habits. Here is an example of the process focusing on sleep:

STEP 1 – Score the quality of your sleep last night out of 10 – we call this ‘self-watching’.

STEP 2 – Then identify and write down how many more hours (or minutes) of sleep you want to achieve this evening – we call this the ‘aim’.

STEP 3 – Then make a detailed ‘plan’ for reaching this objective i.e. write down what time you will be in bed, what time you will prepare for bed, what time you will turn off your electronic devices e.g. mobile, laptop, tablet.

In combination, we call this the S.W.A.P.® Cycle. We need to swap the unhelpful things that hinder our diet, exercise and sleep (D.E.S.®) – and replace them with habits that help us improve. Improving your D.E.S.® can be difficult because the A.P.E. Brain® can get in the way.

Can you stop your A.P.E. Brain® from preventing you and your pupils making a D.E.S. S.W.A.P.®?

Continue reading this Blog to help you achieve this. You will be awarded a ‘D.E.S. S.W.A.P.® Skill’ medal:) Watch the video to find out more:

To help your pupils improve their diet, exercise and sleep, here are some insights. These insights are taken from Level 0 (A.P.E. Brain H.A.C.®: Build better diet, exercise & sleep daily) of the Me Power Academy School Success Membership

We start with this useful audio guide to improving your diet, exercise and sleep. It contains the main points of this blog. You can listen to it on the move to remind yourself how to start building good habits in this area.



A good diet boosts the brain.

To produce and grow new neurological connections, your brain needs a combination of energy, building blocks and antioxidants.


The brain’s fuel source is glucose, which is a type of sugar. Although your brain only makes up around 2% of your overall body weight, it uses 20% of your oxygen and 25% of your glucose. 

Carbohydrates are the body’s main source of glucose. It is best to eat complex carbohydrates which release glucose slowly. These foods tend to be natural and unrefined. They provide a better and more consistent source of energy for the brain than sugary and processed foods.  Hence, you should always try to eat complex carbohydrates like green vegetables, wholegrain or wholewheat bread, wholewheat pasta and brown rice, sweet potatoes, beans, lentils and peas.


The brain is a fatty organ, and so needs fatty acids to make it work properly. Specifically, the brain needs omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids. So your diet should contain these if you want your brain to work well. Typically we eat too much omega-6, but not enough omega-3. To boost your omega-3 levels you can eat cold-water fish like tuna and salmon, and oily fish like mackerel.  Kiwi fruit, soya beans, spinach, flax seeds, chia seeds and walnuts are also sources of omega-3 fatty acids.  


There is strong evidence showing that junk food can quickly damage brain function, particularly the hippocampus.


Another consequence of inadequate nutrition that can be damaging to brain function is known as free radicals. However, a group of molecules known as antioxidants can be used to combat the negative effects of free radicals. Antioxidants include vitamins E and C, and alpha lipoic acid. Foods that contain vitamin C include oranges and other citrus fruits, red peppers, kale, broccoli and strawberries. Foods that contain vitamin E include almonds, spinach, sweet potato, avocado, chard and trout. Finally, foods that contain alpha lipoic acid include broccoli, liver, kidney, spinach, potatoes and carrots.


So, what you eat can help or hinder your learning and your ability to change and develop?

To boost learning you need to eat :

  • Complex carbohydrates
  • Foods which contain omega-3 and omega-6 fatty acids
  • Foods which contain antioxidants



Exercise - school and family

The right amount of exercise during the day can help you to sleep better in the evening.


Walking is classed as exercise. The government recommends that young people do at least one hour of moderate to vigorous aerobic exercise every day. For example: cycling, brisk walking, running or playing tennis.


The government recommends that on three days per week young people do exercises that encourage strong bones and muscles. For example: 

  • Swinging on playground equipment
  • Hopping and skipping
  • Sports such as gymnastics or tennis



It is important that your exercise makes you sweat or perspire. Walking quickly is a good way to do this.


There are many apps and physical activity trackers available that can be used as helpful ways of triggering and tracking beneficial levels of exercise. Also, if you are using a tracker beware of the ‘licencing effect’. This means that people sometimes gain weight when they track the calories they burn because they underestimate their calorie intake. For example, some might do a walk that burns 250 calories and then as a reward treat themselves with a chocolate muffin that they do not realise contains 450 calories.  


Good sleep

Good sleep boosts the brain.


The time you get up in the morning has an impact on the time you can go to sleep in the evening. So it might be difficult to fall asleep early on a Sunday night if you overslept on Sunday morning. Keeping sleeping habits regular throughout the week is important for good, consistent sleep. 


Doing enough exercise during the day can help you to sleep better in the evening.


Caffeine is found in coffee and tea and some sports drinks. How much caffeine you consume during the day, and when you consume it can make an impact on your ability to fall asleep. Data shows that consuming caffeine six hours before going to bed has a negative impact on sleep.


Children and young people are advised not to drink alcohol before the age of 18. Alcohol use during the teenage years is related to a wide range of health and social problems. Drinking alcohol can damage a young person’s health, even if they are 15 or older. Importantly, it can affect the normal development of vital organs and functions, including the brain, liver, bones and hormones. Although alcohol can sometimes make you fall asleep quickly, it reduces sleep quality. This means that alcohol is unhelpful for sleep. Many high-performing sports and business people rarely or never consume alcohol.


Research studies in adults shows that people who drank two glasses of sour cherry juice per day achieved an extra 34 minutes of sleep per night. The studies claim that sour cherries contain high levels of melatonin, a hormone responsible for sleepiness.


Eating small carbohydrate and protein snacks before bed can help you have a good night’s sleep.


Checking social media before bed can make you feel anxious, and therefore make it difficult to fall asleep, and get good quality rest.


The light produced from smartphones, tablets or laptops can make your brain think that it is daytime. So using electronic devices up to one hour before you go to bed can inhibit sleep.


Dehydration can make it more difficult to fall asleep, and reduce sleep quality. It is recommended that men drink around 2 litres, and women drink 1.6 litres of water per day. These are only average numbers, and everyone’s individual needs will be different. It is also important to remember that all drinks contain water, but that some will hydrate you and others dehydrate you. For example, caffeine (found in coffee and tea) is a diuretic which can cause dehydration. 


Sleep is triggered as body temperature reduces. If your bedroom is too hot it will be difficult to fall asleep.


Many people wake up in the middle of the night and struggle to get back to sleep. Significantly, this becomes an unhelpful and unwanted habit. To break this habit you should build a ‘get back to sleep’ routine. Here is one example routine that many people have found useful: 

  • Wake up in the middle of the night
  • Do not check the time as this can add pressure to get back to sleep
  • Go to the bathroom
  • Have a glass of water and half a banana
  • Do not check your phone
  • Get back into bed
  • Read a book until you are ready to fall back to sleep



Humans are designed to sleep when it is dark, quiet and you feel calm. Make sure your bedroom and sleeping practices help to promote all three factors.

Your pupils can improve…

The next step to constantly improve all aspects of your pupils’ sleep, diet and exercise is to learn how habits work and how to build more helpful habits. You can learn more about habits by watching the ‘How habits work’ animation:

Remember sleep, diet and exercise habits maintain and boost the brain. They are crucial for well-being and school success, which is why they are central to our School Success programme

If your pupils build better sleep, diet and exercise habits, school life will become easier.

Well done, you now have more skills to help you improve your pupils’ diet, exercise and sleep.

Celebrate by watching this video:

You might also be interested in this blog about sleep.

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