Note: This post has been updated and incorporated into 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner – an essential read for the serious lifelong learner.
There is ample evidence that how we treat our bodies can have a significant impact on how well our minds function. If you want to learn better, it makes sense to support this goal with a good diet, adequate sleep, and plenty of exercise. Here are a few notes that just barely scratch the surface of how important each of these areas can be:
What we eat can directly impact how our brains function and how receptive and capable we are as learners. One of the better sources I have found on how diet impacts our brains is, “Brain Foods: The Effect of Nutrients on Brain Function,” an article published in Nature in 2008 highlighting the research of Fernando Gomez-Pinilla. I highly recommend reading it in full, but here are a few highlights for the time challenged:
Gomez-Pinilla’s article features a great chart that summarizes the effects of different types of food on the brain. The Happy Healthy Long Life blog has included the chart in a great summary it offers of Gomez-Pinilla’s article. As the author notes, it’s worth printing out and putting on your fridge.
As far as specific approaches to diet that may help improve memory, recent research supports the idea that the Mediterranean Diet – e.g., a diet that tends to avoid saturated fat and emphasis “health fats” containing Omega 3 fatty acids – can have a beneficial impact for most people. This diet aligns well with the bullets above. For more on this research, see Mediterranean Diet Linked to Preserving Memory.
Research continues to grow to show how specific foods and substances found in food support brain health and memory – and, by extension, learning. See, for example:
There are two titles from the Great Courses that I have found helpful in understanding how diet and nutrition work. While they do not draw many explicit links between nutrition and learning, I think the implicit links are relatively easy to recognize. I recommend both of them:
While learning is an active, ongoing process, a key goal for any learner is to “consolidate” learning by moving new information and experiences into long-term memory. A wide range of scientific studies support the idea that sleep is essential for this process. A 2009 MIT study, for example, brought us a significant step closer to understanding the sleep-memory connection by showing that “mice prevented from “replaying” their waking experiences while asleep do not remember them as well as mice who are able to perform this function.”
The bottom line: Sleep is important; get enough of it if you want to make sure your memory is functioning properly.
Of course, that begs the question: what is enough? Unfortunately there is no “one-size-fits-all” answer to that question. The safest bet seems to be to aim for at least the standard 7-8 hours a night recommended for most adults and to pay enough attention to how you feel and act based on that amount of sleep to adjust up or down as needed. For more information on sleep needs from infants up to adults, I recommend an article on sleep requirements from Parenting Science.
Tracing a direct path between physical exercise and our ability to learn is a little tricky, but a significant body of research suggests that physical exercise may boost spatial memory, neuroplasticity, and other aspects of the brain essential to learning.
At a minimum, a short-term effect of exercise, and in particular aerobic exercise that is continued over a period of at least 30 minutes, is an increase in blood flow and corresponding oxygen supply to the brain. This can help boost cognitive function, including memory. A regular exercise habit can help to improve circulation in general and also ward off stress and depression – two established enemies of optimal cognitive function.
Exercise is king. Nutrition is queen. Put them together and you’ve got a kingdom.
― Jack LaLanne
Research also suggests that physical exercise may directly benefit the hippocampus – an area of the brain that is essential to memory. A recent study, for example, showed that “elderly adults who are more physically fit tend to have bigger hippocampi and better spatial memory than those who are less fit.” As one of the lead researchers on the study puts it, “Basically, if you stay fit, you retain key regions of your brain involved in learning and memory.”
So how much exercise should the average person be getting? There’s plenty of debate on the topic, but one reasonable starting point is the Center for Disease Control’s “How much physical activity do you need?”
Related to this exercise and learning, you may also want to see my post The Learning Walk: A Primer.
Like I said at the beginning, this only scratches the surface of how the way we treat our bodies can impact our minds. It’s clear, however, that if you want to be a better learner, it pays to take care of yourself.
P.S. – This post is part of the 10 Ways to Be a Better Learner series. If you like it, please use one or more of the social buttons on this page to share it.
I am an avid lifelong learner who writes and speaks frequently on the critical role of learning in our fast-changing world.