What’s a Scientifically-Proven Way to Improve Your Ability to Learn? Get Out and Exercise

Wiki­me­dia Com­mons Image by the U.S. Navy

The ben­e­fit, nay neces­si­ty, of phys­i­cal exer­cise is unde­ni­able. The med­ical com­mu­ni­ty has iden­ti­fied seden­tary lifestyles as an epi­dem­ic, some­times called “sit­ting dis­ease” (or as peo­ple like to say, “sit­ting is the new smok­ing”). Pro­longed sit­ting has been estab­lished as a cause of all sorts of chron­ic ill­ness­es includ­ing heart dis­ease, dia­betes, and even cer­tain can­cers. Com­bine this prob­lem with the steady stream of processed foods in more and more diets and we have a full-blown pub­lic health cri­sis on our hands that requires some seri­ous inter­ven­tion on the part of doc­tors, dieti­cians, phys­i­cal ther­a­pists, and sci­en­tists.

And as more and more researchers are find­ing out, a poor diet and lack of exer­cise can also have seri­ous­ly harm­ful effects on the brain. Con­verse­ly, as a recent Uni­ver­si­ty of Cal­i­for­nia study shows, exer­cise boosts brain func­tion; it “enhances learn­ing and mem­o­ry, improves exec­u­tive func­tion” and “coun­ter­acts… men­tal decline.” To put the the­o­ry of enhanced learn­ing to the test, researchers have con­duct­ed sev­er­al exper­i­ments and found that phys­i­cal activ­i­ty can improve the abil­i­ty to learn new things at near­ly any age.

Stud­ies have “found cor­re­la­tions between children’s aer­o­bic fit­ness and their brain struc­ture,” reports The New York Times, and kids who exer­cise before math and read­ing tests show con­sis­tent­ly high­er scores than their seden­tary peers. Like­wise, a study con­duct­ed with col­lege stu­dents in Ire­land found that par­tic­i­pants per­formed sig­nif­i­cant­ly bet­ter on mem­o­ry tests after 30 min­utes of cycling. One like­ly expla­na­tion is that exer­cise increas­es the pro­duc­tion of BDNF (Brain-Derived Neu­rotrop­ic Fac­tor), a pro­tein that pro­motes nerve health. And in a new paper pub­lished by researchers from Italy, Chi­na, and Thai­land, we find that that exer­cise can specif­i­cal­ly improve the abil­i­ty to learn new lan­guages.

The study test­ed 40 col­lege-age Chi­nese stu­dents who are learn­ing Eng­lish. One group remained seden­tary, while anoth­er rode exer­cise bikes at a mod­er­ate pace both before and dur­ing study ses­sions. The stu­dents who biked per­formed bet­ter on 8 sep­a­rate vocab­u­lary tests and were bet­ter able to rec­og­nize cor­rect Eng­lish sen­tences. These results are sim­i­lar to those of a recent Ger­man study which found that a group of young women rid­ing exer­cise bikes, at slow and mod­er­ate paces, per­formed much bet­ter on vocab­u­lary tests than anoth­er group who didn’t exer­cise.

Though The New York Times points to a dif­fer­ent study with con­trast­ing results, the evi­dence seems large­ly on the side of exer­cise-enhances-learn­ing pro­po­nents. “In recent years,” the Times notes, “a wealth of stud­ies in both ani­mals and peo­ple have shown that we learn dif­fer­ent­ly if we also exer­cise.” You’ll find many of those stud­ies sum­ma­rized at the BBC, The Guardian, and else­where, along with sev­er­al pos­si­ble expla­na­tions for the phe­nom­e­non. Psy­chol­o­gist Justin Rhodes notes that “aer­o­bic exer­cise can actu­al­ly reverse hip­pocam­pal shrink­age,” increas­ing gray mat­ter in an area of the brain asso­ci­at­ed with mem­o­ry and emo­tion. His con­tention is backed by recent research on mice and humans.

In any case, although it appears that more vig­or­ous exer­cis­es like cycling and run­ning cre­ate the most improve­ment, tak­ing a brisk walk before a class or study ses­sion can also help with reten­tion and alert­ness. What­ev­er kind of exer­cise one does, a sim­ple “take-home mes­sage,” says one researcher, “may be that instruc­tion should be flanked by phys­i­cal activ­i­ty. Sit­ting for hours and hours with­out mov­ing is not the best way to learn.” Hav­ing trou­ble get­ting moti­vat­ed to run or bike before you study for that math test or start a new lan­guage course? Take some advice from Har­vard Med­ical School on how to start slow­ly, find some­thing you like doing, and turn every­day activ­i­ties into exer­cise.

Relat­ed Con­tent:

Why Sit­ting Is The New Smok­ing: An Ani­mat­ed Expla­na­tion

This Is Your Brain on Exer­cise: Why Phys­i­cal Exer­cise (Not Men­tal Games) Might Be the Best Way to Keep Your Mind Sharp

Hear Aer­o­bic Exer­cise: When Sovi­et Musi­cians Record­ed Elec­tron­ic Music for a Sub­ver­sive Home Fit­ness Record (1984)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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