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The Exercise-Learning Connection

I’ve become somewhat fanatical about the “physical” side of learning – namely, exercise, diet, and sleep. I touched on sleep in a recent post (more of that to come), so I thought I’d take exercise for a spin this time around. (And I will, of course, get to diet in the future.)

Evidence has continued to accumulate over the past couple of decades that exercise has a clear impact on various aspects of learning including, but not limited to, encoding (i.e., getting new information into your brain effectively), short term memory, long term memory, and general cognitive performance.

There are, for example, studies that suggest that:

1. Mild exercise while engaged in learning can improve recall (another bit of evidence to support the practice of the learning walk)

2. Even as little as 3 months of aerobic exercise can improve cognition in older adults

3. Exercise also improves spatial and verbal memory in older adults suffering from mild cognitive decline (a condition many of us are likely to experience as we age)

4. A specific molecule released during endurance exercise may spark the growth of new neurons

5. A higher level of fitness can help kids better recall what they have learned

These studies, in combination with a significant amount of prior research, point to the importance of making regular exercise a part of our own lives and our children’s lives. They also underline the need for a greater focus on exercise as part of public policy. While most people understand the benefits to our collective physical health – and the impact on our health care and health insurance systems – the impact on our collective mental health is equally important.

In case you need more convincing – or want to convince others – here are brief summaries from each of the five studies:

Mild to Moderate Exercise During Learning Boosts Recall

German researchers split a pool of 81 healthy young women into three groups. One group completed a language learning activity while sedentary; the second completed the same activity after getting some moderate exercise from stationary bike riding; and the third completed the activity while engaged in the same type of bike exercise as the second group.

Each group was then tested for recall of the words presented during the learning activity. While there was little difference in recall between group one (sedentary learners) and group two (those who did the activity after biking), the third group (those who biked while learning) had significantly better recall than either of the other two. The researchers reported in PLOS ONE that their data “indicates that light to moderate simultaneous physical activity during encoding, but not prior to encoding, is beneficial for subsequent recall of new items.”

Source: Physical Exercise During Encoding Improves Vocabulary Learning in Young Female Adults: A Neuroendocrinological Study, May 20, 2013.

A Little Exercise Goes a Long Way

Researchers had a group of cognitively healthy, but previously sedentary 57-75 year olds engage in an hour of aerobic exercise three times a week for 12 weeks. At the same time, a “control” group was wait listed for the exercise program and got no significant aerobic exercise during this period.

The group that participated in the exercise began showing gains in brain blood flow, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in as little as 6 weeks. Cognitive gains were in the form of improved short term and longer term memory. The sedentary group did not show similar gains.

According to the researchers, the “data suggest that even shorter term aerobic exercise can facilitate neuroplasticity to reduce both the biological and cognitive consequences of aging to benefit brain health in sedentary adults.”

Source: Shorter term aerobic exercise improves brain, cognition, and cardiovascular fitness in aging

Also reported in:



Physical Activity Helps Combat Cognitive Decline

This study involved a group of 86 women between these ages of 70 and 80 years, each of whom had complained about memory loss. Each woman was placed into one of three exercise groups: resistance training, aerobic training, or balance and tone (the “control” group). Verbal and spatial memory were measured in each group both before and after a six month period in which the participant exercised twice a week.

Compared with the control group, the women who engaged in aerobic exercise performed significantly better on verbal memory tests after six months. Additional, both the aerobic and the resistance training groups experienced gains in spatial memory.

The study’s authors write that the results “provide support for the prevailing notion that exercise can positively impact cognitive functioning and may represent an effective strategy to improve memory in those who have begun to experience cognitive decline.

Source: Physical Activity Improves Verbal and Spatial Memory in Older Adults with Probable Mild Cognitive Impairment: A 6-Month Randomized Controlled Trial

Molecule Released During Endurance Exercise May Spark Neuron Growth

We’ve known for some time that exercise can increase the expression of brain-derived neurotrophic factor, or BDNF, a protein critical to the growth of new neurons as well as the health of existing neurons. A study released in October 2013 in Cell Metabolism sheds light on exactly what occurs during exercise to make this happen.

Through experiments conducted on mice, scientists found that a molecule called FNDC5 and its by-product, irisin, are elevated in the brain by endurance exercise in the brain. The team also found that raising levels of irisin in the circulation of the mice caused the molecule to cross the blood brain barrier, where it increased expression of BDNF and activated genes involved in cognition. Conversely, mice genetically altered to have low irisin levels in the brain had reduced levels of BDNF.

Lead investigator Dr. Bruce Spiegelman of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute and Harvard Medical School said that the findings “indicate that FNDC5/irisin has the ability control a very important neuroprotective pathway in the brain.” The next step in the research will be to see if an injectable form of irisins cab be developed to protect against neurodegenerative diseases and improve cognition in the aging population.

The researchers next plan to work on developing a stable form of the irisin protein that can be given to mice by injection and may augment the brain’s natural anti-degeneration pathways.

Source: Exercise Induces Hippocampal BDNF through a PGC-1α/FNDC5 Pathway

No Child Left on Her Behind

In this study, a group of 48 nine-to-ten year olds were challenged to learn the names of specific regions on a map under two learning conditions: “study only” (SO) and “tested during study” (TS). Half of the kids had been assessed previously as “high fit” and half as “low fit.”

There was not a significant difference between the groups in the initial learning task – both the low fit and high fit groups performed at similar levels in learning the names. When it came to later recall, however, the high fit group performed significantly better. The difference was even greater in the “study only” condition, generally viewed as a more challenging learning condition since it does not offer the reinforcement of learning that testing during study provides (see 5 Powerful Strategies for Your Lifelong Learning Toolbox for more on the benefits of testing during study.)

The researchers concluded that “fitness can boost learning and memory of children and that these fitness-associated performance benefits are largest in conditions in which initial learning is the most challenging.” They also note that the finding have important public policy implications given that there is a “a growing trend of inactivity among children, which may not only result in poorer physical health, but also poorer cognitive health.”

Source: The Influence of Childhood Aerobic Fitness on Learning and Memory


The above studies are just some of the most recent evidence that good exercise habits are important for our overall approach to lifelong learning. being fit to learn means, to a certain extent, being fit.

What, if anything, are you doing to be a fit learner, or to encourage the kids in your life to develop good fitness habits?

Please comment and share.


P.S. – But wait, there’s more! (I always continue to add new research and resources to posts like this one.):

2 thoughts on “The Exercise-Learning Connection”

  1. So true. One of the most perplexing qualities of human beings is that we so often no what we should do, and yet we don’t do it! – Jeff

  2. Whenever you research almost any chronic medical condition, you will inevitably find the same suggestions for management: sleep, diet, fluids, stress-reduction, and exercise. Surely that says a lot. So much in life can be improved if you focus on any one of these things. So yes, I agree that exercise is a must for improved learning.

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