How Exercise Can Improve Your Learning

October 17, 2012 Katharina Lochner

Exercising Helps to Consolidate Physical Memories

Learned Movements In previous posts, we reported what we can do in order to encode and remember the important things: maintain an information diet and take some of the lessons learned from religion to heart: pick the right sources of information, arrange time for what you want to learn and repeat the contents all over again, amongst others. But what about motor learning? What can we do in order to store movements we have just learned, like a certain way of moving our tennis rack or golf club or a particular sequence of steps in dance? Exercise.

Marc Roig, Kasper Skriver, Jesper Lundbye-Jensen, Bente Kiens, and Jens Bo Nielsen from the University of Copenhagen were interested in how previously learned movements can be stored in our long term memory optimally. Their idea was that physical activity would have an impact on this long term memory consolidation. Their study participants completed a motor learning task in which they had to follow a line on the computer screen with the cursor using a controller. They had to repeat this task until the movement was almost automatic. The researchers divided their participants into three groups: one rode a bike for 15 minutes before the task, the other one after it, and the third one did not exercise at all. When repeating the motor learning task, it turned out that those who had exercised after the task performed slightly worse than the other two groups an hour later, but significantly better a week and a month later.

The authors of the study concluded that exercising after a task helps the brain to consolidate and store physical or motor memories. They assume that the mechanism behind this might be that aerobic exercise stimulates the production of certain substances in the brain like brain-derived neurotropic factor and noradrenaline, substances that drive memory consolidation and learning. They think that the effect they found for motor learning might also apply for storing intellectual memories. Thus, if you would like to optimise your motor and intellectual learning, do a little bit of exercise right after studying.

The original article was published in the journal PLoS One.

There is a detailed outline of the study in the New York Times.

On the University of Copenhagen’s University Post, the authors of the study suggest the following: “In any case, I would suggest students to try this: after some hours of hard study, go for an intense but short run (15 minutes). Do not check if you retained what you studied immediately after the run. Wait some hours or even better go to sleep. First thing in the next morning, check how well you remember things.”

This is one more study that points out the importance of aerobic exercise, that is, light to moderate intensity training that uses oxygen for delivering energy, for cognitive functioning. We reported findings like this before, and we will keep our eyes open for more of them.

About the Author

Katharina Lochner

Dr Katharina Lochner is the former research director for the cut-e Group which was acquired by Aon in 2017. Katharina is now a researcher and lecturer at the University of Applied Sciences Europe in Iserlohn, Germany. In her role at cut-e, she applied the research in organizational and work psychology to real-world assessment practice. She has a strong expertise in the construction and evaluation of online psychometric tools.

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