[Written by Peter Nielsen].
Numerous studies have been conducted in the past 10 years focusing on exercise and memory, creating a consensus about the positive effect of exercise on brain functions. Still, details have been missing, and many questions remain. When is the best time to exercise? Is a more strenuous workout more beneficial? How long do the gains last? Three studies in particular demonstrate the benefits of exercise to learning and retaining that ability throughout your life.
The latest study, published this week by PLOS One, included eighty-one healthy, German-speaking women, who were randomly divided into three groups. Members of all groups listened to lists of German words with their Polish equivalents through headphones for 30 minutes, with instructions to memorize the Polish word. One group listened after sitting for 30 minutes, the second group rode a stationary bicycle at a mild rate for 30 minutes before sitting down to listen to the German/Polish words, while the third group also rode a bicycle at a low intensity for 30 minutes, but listened to the word lists while riding the bike.
The participants were tested two days after hearing the lists. While all women could recall some words, the women who had ridden bicycles while listening to the German/Polish words performed best while the women who exercised before the tasks did slightly better than the women who had not exercised at all before listening to the list.
Another study asked 11 female students to read difficult chapters from a textbook on different days. One day while sitting quietly and, on the other day, during strenuous workout on an elliptical machine for 30 minutes. The students were tested on the material they’d just read immediately after reading it, and retested the next day.
These test scores were actually worse on the memory tests taken right after reading during a high-intensity workout than the test scores taken after they’d been sitting quietly and studying. Interestingly, when retested the following day, there were no differences in their scores, whether they exercised or sat quietly when reading the chapter.
Researchers concluded that exercising during learning was significantly more effective than exercising beforehand or not at all. However, that beneficial impact seems to depend on the intensity of the workout with light-intensity exercise leading to significant benefits. It’s believed that higher-intensity exercise may use more of the brain’s resources during the workout, leaving fewer resources to recall functions, which could explain lower testing immediately after strenuous exercise.
In a third study, a group of people 50 to 85 years old with and without memory deficits viewed pleasant images followed by a six-minute workout at 70% of their maximum capacity on a stationary bicycle. Another group viewed the pictures but did not ride the bike afterwards. One hour later, all participants were given a recall test on the images they viewed. Results showed a striking enhancement of memory in the group that exercised compared with subjects who did not ride the bike.
Much more research is being done on this important subject, but one thing is sure … an active body supports an active brain!
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