Yes, Exercise Helps You Retain Information. Here's Why That's Important

Photo: Carina König

If you're working to grasp a difficult concept—whether it's a new language or a deep dive into an organic chemistry textbook—it's probably in your best interest to exercise while you do so.

Yes, in addition to the happiness-boosting, stress-reducing, life-extending benefits that exercise provides, it also aids in the learning process. And it makes sense when you think about it: Solutions to even the most difficult problems often come to us when we're in the middle of a long walk or a head-clearing run. Let's take a closer look at why that is.

What the latest research says.

A new study published in the scientific journal PLoS One specifically focused on how exercise can help adults learn a new language, which is notoriously difficult (it's a lot easier for kids). For the study, researchers recruited 40 college-age students in China who were looking to learn English. The study participants were divided into two groups: One group would continue to learn exactly as they had before (by rote vocabulary memorization), and the others were instructed to ride a stationary bike for 20 minutes before and 15 minutes during their study session.

Afterward, the students who had exercised while they learned performed better on vocabulary tests and were significantly better at recognizing sentences than those who remained sedentary while they learned. In other words, yes: Moving while you learn is probably a good idea.

Why exercise helps you learn.

If you're an English-language speaker trying to learn Mandarin, should you be studying up while in downward-facing dog? Not necessarily. Ilene Ruhoy, M.D., Ph.D., and board-certified neurologist, says that while yoga is certainly a beneficial form of exercise, its purpose is to calm us down and actually stop us from acquiring new information—and this thought-stopping practice is why it's so great for stress. If learning is the goal, opt for cardio.

"For improved learning, study during cardio exercise and directly after," she says. "It can be as simple as walking. I used to walk around campus reading a book during medical school. Movement is essential!"

Dr. Ruhoy adds that similar areas of the brain are recruited for both exercise and learning. "An increase in blood flow to those areas improves our ability to learn."

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Once you're done exercising, make sure to get some sleep.

Learning a new skill doesn't end with exercise. Another way you can speed up the learning process is by getting enough sleep. "To consolidate and be able to recall those newly learned lessons, one needs a great night's sleep that night and not necessarily the night before," says Dr. Ruhoy.

Research has long shown that sleep is important for the consolidation of new information. Just as a sleep-deprived person has a hard time learning, the opposite is also true: Getting a good night's sleep can help seal in crucial information. So once you've exercised your way to some new skills, make sure to get a good night's sleep.

In a rut? Read about how running outside broke one woman out of hers.

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