Exercise & Learning

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This article was published on the New York Times website earlier this month and looks at some research performed recently about exercise and its affect on learning.

You can read the full article here.

What was discovered was ‘that the timing and intensity of even a single bout of exercise can definitely affect your ability to remember — though not always beneficially.’

The first study tested 81 healthy young native German-speaking women and randomly divided them into three groups. Each group wore headphones and listened for 30 minutes to lists of paired words, one a common German noun and the other its Polish equivalent. The women were asked to memorize the unfamiliar word.

Each group listened to the words either at rest or while undertaking exercise at different intensities. One group listened after sitting quietly for 30 minutes, the second rode a stationary bicycle at a gentle pace for 30 minutes and then sat down to listen. The third group rode a bicycle at a mild intensity for 30 minutes while wearing the headphones and listening to the new words.

Two days later, the women’s new vocabulary was tested and while they could all recall some new words, the women who had gently ridden a bicycle while hearing the new words — who had exercised lightly during the process of creating new memories — performed best. They had the most robust recall of the new information, significantly better than the group that had sat quietly and better than the group that had exercised before learning. Those women performed only slightly better than the women who had not exercised at all.

Another new study of memory formation and exercise, presented by the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis, provided some contrasting results. During this study, 11 female college students read a dense chapter from a college textbook on two occasions: once while sitting quietly and, on a separate day, while exercising vigorously on an elliptical machine for 30 minutes. Immediately after each session, the students were tested on the material they’d just read. They were then retested the next day.

In this study, exercise was not found to help the women’s memories, at least in the short term. Their test scores were actually worse on the memory test conducted immediately after they’d exercised while reading compared with their scores taken soon after they’d been sitting quietly and studying.

But the recall gap disappeared the next day, when the women were retested. At that point, there were no differences in their scores, whether they’d vigorously exercised while learning the new material or not.

The message of these studies would seem to be that the timing and intensity of exercise interact to affect memory formation. Exercising during learning was, in one study, significantly more effective than exercising beforehand or not exercising at all.

But that beneficial impact probably depended on the mild intensity of the workout. ‘Light-intensity exercise will elicit low but noticeable levels of physiological arousal’ which, in turn, presumably help to prime the brain for the intake of new information and the encoding of that information into memories.

If the exercise is more vigorous, however, it may overstimulate the body and brain, taking up more of the brain’s attentional resources and leaving fewer for the creation of robust memories.

This theory also helps to explain why, in both studies, memory recall was best a day or two after exercise, by which time the physiological arousal would have dissipated.

Unfortunately these new studies don’t explain how exercise affects memory creation at a molecular level. This is still one of the many mysteries of human memory formation. It is thought that, as part of the arousal process, exercise stimulates the release of certain chemicals in the brain that affect memory formation. While this idea has yet to be proven, there are some studies currently underway.

The practical outcomes to takeaway from these studies would seem to be that “If you have an exam” or other activity that involves memorising and recalling information “in a few hours, you would probably be better off sitting quietly and studying. However, if the exam is the next day, it won’t hurt you to study while exercising.” And if your workout is gentle, it could even help.

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