Exercise boosts learning – that’s great!

But how easy is it to put this into your day….?

 

What’s new?



Earlier this year (2016), research was published on how exercise boosts learning. 

Excellent. 

I’m always interested to hear ways to help me, and everyone else, learn things (perhaps this is because I think it should be easier than it is). My own personal experience is that I find I have to keep going back to the subject again and again before it really starts to sink in. 

Exercise boosts learning


The research compared three groups after forty minutes of a learning exercise. One group didn’t exercise at all, the second exercised straight after the learning task and the third group exercised four hours after completing the learning task. The groups were then all tested to see how much they’d retained. The results are suggesting that exercising four hours after the learning task helped boost retention the most.

Let’s look at the pros and cons..

Pros:

  • Improves learning – The obvious plus side is the suggestion that exercise can help improve learning. As I said above – excellent! Anything that helps make things easier.
  • Adds to other known benefits – Boosting learning can be added to the list of other known benefits of exercise, such as improving mood, increased energy, promoting better sleep and physical health. I do like to tick a lot of boxes with activities I’m doing, so if exercise helps me sleep better, improve my mood and mental and physical health, as well as helping me learn – then that’s fab!
  • Can be incorporated into education systems – Knowing that exercise can help with learning will benefit anyone in education. Perhaps useful to use while on study leave in preparation for taking exams, or even after learning new topics during short courses.
  • Guilt-free time away from studies – My own personal study approach has been to lock myself away in a quiet room and to go over what it is I need to know. I tend to feel guilty if I Ieave the room, as I feel I should be still sat there until the new information has sunk in. If I had of known that exercising would help me with what I’m trying to learn then I’d be straight out the door and guilt-free, knowing that this will benefit me and my studies.

Cons:

  • How easy is it to fit into the day? – I suppose the obvious one for me is how practical is it to exercise four hours after learning something. For myself, in more recent years, the courses I’ve been on to increase my knowledge in different areas typically finish at five o’clock in the evening, sometimes as late at nine o’clock. I can’t see me then going out four hours later to exercise (even if it would help me retain more information). If finishing earlier in the day then I can, of course, see that it would be easier to go out.
  • Does the exercise have to be on a bike? – The form of exercise the investigators used was a bike for 30 minutes. Let’s say the above point made about how difficult it may be to time exercise four hours after a learning exercise, is do-able. It may or may not be difficult to get hold of a bike in order to cycle for 30 minutes. Myself, I live in an area where I feel the roads are quite dangerous for someone on a bike, so would not want to cycle around here, and I don’t have access to gym facilities (preferring the outdoors to exercise). If I had access to a gym, then some considerations would be how far away it is and how easy it is to get to. Ideally, for me, running would be a better and more convenient form of exercise.

Thoughts on future research

Much as I’ve noted the difficulties of timing exercise into someone’s day, I do actually think that it’s a great area to research. As I said above, anything that may help enhance learning and make things that little bit easier to remember information learned is great. As I typically find reading research articles, it always leads me to ask more questions. Such as:
 
  • Does the exercise need to be cycling? For me running is preferential, but for others, it could be other activities such as swimming or a team-based exercise.
  • Does it need to be 30 minutes of exercises or could it be less?
  • How intense does the exercise need to be? High-intensity or gentle exercise?
  • Is there any other time difference after learning that has similar effects? Logistically I would feel the closer to learning the exercise is, the easier it may be to fit into the day.
  • Does the learning-based exercise the study use equate to any kind of learning or is it just specific to the exercise they used?
 

What’s the way forwards?

 
As discussed above there are lots of questions that this research raises. Despite that, I’m a big believer in people trying things to see how it affects them. Unfortunately, in real life, there’s no control that you can compare yourself to, to see if exercise has or hasn’t helped improve learning.
 
With all the other benefits that exercise has to health, in my opinion, you can’t go far wrong in taking a learning task and then scheduling in some form of exercise a few hours after you finish. In my mind, it wouldn’t necessarily have to be cycling and perhaps doesn’t have to be as long as four hours after the learning. As long as you enjoy what you’re out doing.
 
 

Start small…

 
If you’re interested in taking this forwards then I’d suggest starting small to improve your chances of success. Perhaps take a subject that you’d like to brush up on and have a read through the topic on a day you know that you’re going to the gym, run or play your chosen sport. The hardest part, as suggested above will be to check your progress.
 
 
Even if you don’t manage to fully integrate the above suggestions into your lifestyle, I feel it’s definitely worthwhile knowing about this kind evidence that’s out there. Maybe in the future, when you come across a difficult subject, you can always head out the house/flat to do some exercises, knowing that rather than taking you away from your studies it may actually be helping!
 
 
 
Reference:
Van Dongen et. al. (2016) Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increase Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Current Biology, 26(13), pp 1722-1727