Psychology Magazine

Factoids on Exercise and Learning - the Kind of Exercise is Important

By Deric Bownds @DericBownds

In my scans of journals' tables of contents for potential MindBlog posts I keep an eye out for articles on exercise, probably the most life enhancing activity one can engage in. A large number of studies document enhancement of learning and memory in animals and people who exercise, and more structure is added to this effect by the study of Schmidt-Kassow et al., that shows that light to moderate physical activity while listening to equivalent nouns in German (familiar language) and Polish (the unfamiliar language) enhances the memorization of the unfamiliar words. Recall two days later was better for this group than for a group sitting quietly before the word presentations or another group that exercised just before the word presentations. Here is their abstract:

Acute physical activity has been repeatedly shown to improve various cognitive functions. However, there have been no investigations comparing the effects of exercise during verbal encoding versus exercise prior to encoding on long-term memory performance. In this current psychoneuroendocrinological study we aim to test whether light to moderate ergometric bicycling during vocabulary encoding enhances subsequent recall compared to encoding during physical rest and encoding after being physically active. Furthermore, we examined the kinetics of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in serum which has been previously shown to correlate with learning performance. We also controlled for the BDNF val66met polymorphism. We found better vocabulary test performance for subjects that were physically active during the encoding phase compared to sedentary subjects. Post-hoc tests revealed that this effect was particularly present in initially low performers. BDNF in serum and BDNF genotype failed to account for the current result. Our data indicates that light to moderate simultaneous physical activity during encoding, but not prior to encoding, is beneficial for subsequent recall of new items.
Another study finds a different result for more strenuous exercise during reading for which retention was tested. Exercise decreased retention tested immediately after exercise but after two days retention was the same for exercise and non-exercise groups. Perhaps the low level of physiological arousal in the first study primed the brain for the intake of new information while more vigorous exercise overstimulated and monopolized more of the brain's attentional resources. (This second study had only 11 subjects in the test group, versus 105 used for the first study.)

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