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Exercising and learning - the best couple?

Publications 24 May 2024 No Comments

People often engage in physical activity for the sake of good looks or healthy body function. With scientific advances, the range of exercise functions is expanding and new roles are being assigned to it. For example, it has recently become popular to exercise for relaxation or to maintain a good mood. Have you ever found yourself struggling to remember information while studying? Well, you’re not alone. Many students strive to develop a strong knowledge base through self-directed study, but it can be challenging to retain all that information.

But what if physical activity could improve learning processes? In that case, most students or white collars likely would adapt their exercise routine for learning. Fortunately, the first steps to examine this effect have been taken, and from what is already known, high-intensity interval training is the most effective in this area of research.

Cardiovascular exercise is beneficial for long-term memory. The timing and intensity of exercise is important, with the greatest benefit from higher intensities occurring in close temporal proximity, or in other terms, shortly before and after learning. The increase in neuroplasticity induced by high-intensity interval training (HIIT) may be the mechanism by which exercise enhances learning. HIIT also induces changes at the level of the cerebellum and transmembrane sensory pathways that contribute to exercise-induced plasticity. Finally, exercise may affect the efficiency and speed of learning through the release of neurochemicals, including brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), dopamine, lactate, norepinephrine, epinephrine, and insulin-like growth factor. Quite impressive, isn’t it?

Exercise immediately before learning

At the first glance, the concept of learning and exercising may look beneficial for the musicians. Importantly, performers often need to remember what they are supposed to play, and they are likely to do so by creating an internal representation of the music, either visually, aurally, or motorically. And here we have good news around the corner – training improves music learning.

The goal of the previous unique study was to determine if high-intensity exercise could also improve piano learning. The study involved 25 volunteers between the ages of 18 and 35. They were right-handed and not professionally involved in music. Four sessions were performed during the study. The subjects were divided into two groups: one group performed HIIT training throughout the experiment and the other group performed LIIT. HIIT consisted of the subjects using the cycloergometer to first do a 2-minute stretch at 60% of maximum power and then a 3-minute stretch at 90% power. Such a workout consisted of 3 sets of these intervals. The LIIT training had the same pattern, only the intensity was 8 and 12 percent, respectively. In theory, these training parameters are designed to increase lactate levels in the case of HIIT and motor consolidation in the case of LIIT.

After LIIT or HIIT training, subjects were given a piano skill acquisition task (i.e., learning to play), and one hour later they were tested for maintenance of these skills. At subsequent sessions, the maintenance test was administered again, but after 24 hours and 1 week. Participants also practiced a new melody after one week to assess whether exercise-induced improvements in initial skill consolidation promoted better knowledge transfer.

Exposure to HIIT after learning a melody slightly but statistically significantly improved the acquisition of pitch and rhythm information of the melody practiced one week later.

Or maybe stay active after learning?

Here’s an unconventional tip: try exercising for just five minutes immediately after you learn something new. According to a study published in Cognitive Research, engaging in low-impact exercise right after learning can improve memory retention, but actually among women only.

In the study, a group of women who engaged in low-impact exercise immediately after learning was compared with women who engaged in a non-exercise control activity in terms of recall for paired associations. The results were clear: coupling exercise with studying had a positive effect on memory. And the best part? It only took 5 minutes of low-impact exercise to notice results. One could wonder – what would happen there if they applied HIIT…

Even 4 hours later?

Want to improve your memory yet another way? Try exercising four hours after learning something new. A study published in Current Biology in 2016, found that exercising after learning can enhance memory, but only if done within a specific time frame.

In the study, 72 participants learned 90 picture-location associations over a period of 40 minutes. They were then divided into three groups: one group exercised immediately, the second group exercised four hours later, and the third group did not exercise at all. The exercise routine consisted of 35 minutes of interval training on an exercise bike at an intensity of up to 80% of the maximum heart rate.

After 48 hours, the participants’ memory was tested while their brains were scanned using an MRI. The group that exercised four hours after the learning session retained information better than the other two groups. The MRI also showed that the hippocampus, a brain region involved in learning and memory, was more active when information was correctly recalled.

The process of turning newly learned information into long-term knowledge requires certain brain chemicals that are released during exercise, such as dopamine, noradrenaline, and the growth factor BDNF, according to the researchers. It is also unclear why exercising four hours after learning was more beneficial or if another time frame might produce similar results.

What about learning while working out?

What if we told you that there’s a way to enhance your memory while exercising? A recent study conducted by HA Zabriskie and EM Heath found that coupling exercise with studying can actually improve your ability to recall information. The study involved 21 physically active young adults who were divided into three groups. The first group was tasked with memorizing a list of words while cycling. The second group memorized the words after cycling, and the third group memorized the words without any exercise.

After 24 hours, the participants returned to test their memory. The results were fascinating: the group that had memorized while cycling recalled an average of 51.5 words, while the other two groups recalled an average of 45.1 and 45.7 words respectively.

So, what does this mean for us? Well, it means that incorporating exercise into our study routine can actually enhance our ability to remember information. So, next time you’re hitting the books, why not try coupling it with some physical activity? Your brain will thank you!

A brief summary

Scientific experiments may give us a lot of valuable information, however there are a lot of limitations as to what kind of activity works best and how. but don’t worry about it and don’t take it as an excuse. We can stay ahead of research and discover new benefits of exercising in practice. Believe me – there are a lot of potential health boosting mechanisms waiting to be uncovered. As long as you stay active but also get enough rest, it will definitely be better for you. As they say – “sound mind, sound body”. The body and mind are inseparable elements of our functioning. Combine them together and expect an incredible outcome!

Categories: Publications



Zabriskie HA, Heath EM. Effectiveness of Studying When Coupled with Exercise-Induced Arousal. Int J Exerc Sci., 2019

Swarbrick D. et al., HIIT the Road Jack: An Exploratory Study on the Effects of an Acute Bout of Cardiovascular High-Intensity Interval Training on Piano Learning. Front. Psychol. 2020

Thomas al., Acute exercise and motor memory consolidation: the role of exercise timing. Neural. Plast 2016

Mang, C. et al., A single bout of high-intensity aerobic exercise facilitates response to paired associative stimulation and promotes sequence-specific implicit motor learning. J. Appl. Physiol. 2014

Seidler, R. Neural correlates of motor learning, transfer of learning, and learning to learn. Exerc. Sport Sci. Rev. 2010

Krakauer, J. et al., Motor learning. Compr. Physiol. 2019

Dinoff, A. et al., The effect of acute exercise on blood concentrations of brain-derived neurotrophic factor in healthy adults: a meta-analysis. Eur. J. Neurosci. 46, 2017

van Dongen EV. et al., Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Curr Biol. 2016

Most, S.B. et al.,. Evidence for improved memory from 5 minutes of immediate, post-encoding exercise among women. Cogn. Research 2017

Blomstrand, P, Engvall, J. Effects of a single exercise workout on memory and learning functions in young adults—A systematic review. Transl Sports Med. 2021


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