Exercise and its effect on Learning

Exercise and learning

In today’s society, there is extensive media coverage on being physically fit. Exercise impacts not just our outer appearance, but also the network of neurons within the brain and our learning capacity.

The brain has been found to be very “plastic”. New neurones can form with repetition of the material to be learned forming a “superhighway” to the correct answer to a question. For example, we all know automatically that 2 x 3 =6. This happens because in childhood we used repetition to build a dense collection of neural connections to embed that fact permanently in long term memory. Amazingly, these groups of neurones leading to the correct answer can turn off neurones leading to incorrect answers.

So how does exercise effect learning?

Exercise has been shown to reduce the rate of cognitive decline in elderly people. But how does it affect children’s brains?

Studies on college age students who completed a two minute high-intensity burst of exercise had elevated levels of important brain chemicals. These chemicals include dopamine, epinephrine and Brain Derived Neurotrophic Factor (BDNF).

BDNF increases the speed at which nerve impulses can cross the synapses (the spaces between connected neurones) so messages can move faster. Brain connectivity and plasticity is improved.

Dopamine is involved in reward motivated behaviour and improves executive functioning of the brain. This specifically results in improved problem solving, motor attention, memory, language and intelligence.

Epinephrine generally improves learning capabilities.

How to structure acute exercise

So, if part of that gym workout involved short, acute bouts of an activity followed by rest periods, your gym workout will actually make you smarter! Long moderate exercise does not produce the amazing results delivered by High Intensity Training (HIT) described above.

Whatever your sport, include short bouts of intense exercise followed by rest. For example, sprint for 20 seconds followed by 10 seconds rest and repeat eight times (4 minutes). Rest for two minutes then complete another round. This can be a different activity eg. stationary cycling. Do four rounds altogether which, including breaks, should take you 22 minutes.

Try and do this three days per week to keep your body and brain at their very best. There is a strong correlation that has been known from decades of research that students who perform well academically often exercise regularly.