Work out your brain - how exercise helps you learn

292 days ago 7 minute read
Work out your brain - how exercise helps you learn

We all know exercise is good for our bodies, but it’s also linked to tangible benefits in helping us learn. Exercise has been shown to positively impact the brain in a range of ways, from boosting memory to improving focus and delaying age-related cognitive decline. Discover how different types of physical activity produce distinct effects on your brain's capacity to learn.

Aerobic exercise

Aerobic exercise, also commonly referred to as cardio, is any sustained form of exercise performed at a moderate intensity that calls for the heart to deliver oxygen-rich blood to working muscles.

Several studies on a range of age groups have shown that aerobic exercise increases the size of the hippocampus, the region of the brain central to memory and learning. Adults, children and the elderly all demonstrated positive results in retaining knowledge as their fitness levels improved. Similarly, an association between aerobic exercise and memory was found in college-age students. The students with poor cardiorespiratory fitness had a tough time remembering simple terms they had memorized the day before.

Research has further pinpointed an optimal window of time in which to reap the benefits of combining exercise and learning. Aerobic exercise performed four hours after learning new information was found to improve recall by 10%. The Netherlands based study found this four hour timing was better for retention compared to people who worked out immediately after learning, and those who did not work out at all.

In addition, cardio can improve focus and executive control, helping you ignore distractions and keep your attention on the task at hand. Studies on Dutch and American school children found that short bursts of aerobic exercise and after school sports programs respectively resulted in improved attention spans and better focus and multi-tasking abilities.

Key takeaway: As so many forms of exercise fall under the aerobic umbrella, take your pick and run, swim, cycle or climb your way to improved memory and focus.

Non-aerobic exercise

Non-aerobic forms of exercise don’t require oxygen to sustain energy, and mainly focus on improving muscle strength, coordination and balance. Beyond the physical perks, there are promising developments on how non-aerobic exercise benefits the brain.

When stress negatively affects the brain you might feel anxious, scatter-brained or unable to focus. Many people get stressed out trying to maintain a study-life balance, or feel bogged down and lose motivation to keep learning. An overabundance of the stress hormone cortisol can kill existing brain cells and halt the production of new ones. Chronic stress can also reduce levels of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with mood stabilization and feelings of wellbeing.

Counteracting the detrimental impact of stress through non-aerobic exercise can help free your mind up for learning. Yoga has long been touted as a relaxation tool that calms the body and mind with controlled movement and breathing techniques. Far from a new age fad, research has shown that regular practice of yoga decreased participants’ stress levels, complete with brain scans demonstrating that part of the amygdala, a brain structure activated in stress responses, visibly shrunk as a result.

Resistance training like weightlifting has been shown to lead to positive functional changes in aging brains, when undertaken twice a week. This positive effect was not observed in the group that only trained once a week, so make it a bi-weekly affair for best results. Both moderate and high intensity resistance exercise was found to be equally beneficial on cognitive functioning.

Six months of dancing once a week was established to enhance cognitive performance in elderly participants, regardless of prior skill level. Dancing requires balance and coordination but also calls on your memory to recall dance steps and sequences, unlike running in place on a treadmill. It is worth noting that the dance activity undertaken in this study was not strenuous enough to be classified as cardiovascular fitness, illustrating that you don’t have to go full throttle to get the benefits.

Key takeaway: If aerobic exercise is not your thing, get your brain gains from pumping iron and practicing yoga to beat stress, ward off brain fog and stay sharp.


The simple act of walking is a low intensity exercise that can help your brain generate fresh ideas, learn information faster and remember more.

If you have writer’s block when working on a report or are struggling to come up with new ideas for a brainstorming session, walking may be the ideal remedy. A Stanford study found that walking can particularly benefit creative thinking, increasing participants’ creativity 81% on a creative divergent thinking test compared to those who sat or were wheeled in a wheelchair. Participants who walked outside yielded the best results, coming up with the highest quality analogies.

Walking may be the ideal choice for foreign language learners struggling with memorizing irregular verbs and tricky vocabulary. German research found that 63% of learners who walked on a treadmill while practicing vocabulary remembered it better in the long term than those who were sedentary.

Dedicating three days a week to take a 30 minute walk can enlarge the part of the brain linked to planning and memory, fortify mental aptitude and delay cognitive decline in diseases such as dementia. City dwellers should opt to spend time in the park or other natural environments for greater working memory performance and mood enhancement.

Key takeaway: Whether indoors or outdoors, walking can trigger the flow of new ideas, shave years off your mental age, and improve your memory to boot.

Get moving

Staying physically fit can keep both your body and your mind young and functioning at peak capacity. Take your pick of exercises and get moving to build a better, faster and stronger brain. You can look forward to huge improvements in how you learn with every step you take!