We know that exercise is good for us. It improves our cardiovascular health and strength. It can also help to prevent injuries. But the idea that exercise can improve our brain functions is a newer idea. Research is slowly showing potential links between exercise and cognitive functioning, but of course there are other factors at play such as links between education and both cognitive abilities and having the income and awareness for a health conscious lifestyle. Another potential issue, which is not solved by the two studies I’ll look at here, is the populations that are studied. There hasn’t been, from what I can see, a general study that looks across different members of the population. The current studies are largely restricted to a single group such as young male adult or older adult at risk for Alzheimer’s. What does that mean for anyone who doesn’t fit in those populations?
At the same time, there are studies producing results that are worth looking at and expanding the approach to other populations. Perini and colleagues (2016) studied young adult males who were current university students. The participants all completed a test first to act as their baseline to compare to and then performed 30 minutes of stationary cycling. The control group cycled at a very low intensity so that there was only a slight change to their heart rate from baseline (around 4 beats per minute). The experimental group cycled at a moderate intensity so that there was a significant increase in heart rate (around 80 beats per minute). The individuals then performed tasks that tested both their visual and motor learning. Both increased for at least 30 minutes after exercise.
Frith, Sng, and Loprinzi (2017) considered how high-intensity exercise impacted young adult participants’ learning and short and long term memory. They studied a more diverse group, and recorded racial background as well as being split approximately equally between male and female. However, the study group was small, less than 100, and therefore it is difficult to draw any trends for different groups within the population. In this study, participants jogged on a treadmill for 15 minutes, increasing the intensity every five minutes. The results showed that high intensity exercise didn’t impact their learning or short term memory but, when the exercise occurred prior to the learning (as opposed to while learning or after learning) there was a significant impact on long term memory after 20 minutes and after 24 hours.
I’m intrigued by these studies and this area of research. So often, we think of learning as connected to being stationary. We sit at a computer or in a classroom and the most exercise many students get is walking between their classes, if they’re face-to-face that is. But that means that we might not be taking advantage of a potentially useful tool for both learning and areas of our well-being. I wonder what it would be like to create not lecture videos but lecture podcasts, that students could download and listen to while they went for a walk or on their commute back from a gym. I wonder what would happen if we shortened classes by 5 minutes and put wellness breaks into the day to facilitate exercise and self care. Perhaps, we need to bring recess into all levels of education.
I’ve learned that the secret to my learning doesn’t tend to be spending more time sitting and reading or watching videos. I used to get critiqued by my grad school colleagues for making time to go to the gym. I always swore it made me more productive in the long run and this is something that I still try to hold onto today, although I find challenging work culture harder than challenging school culture. But what if we actually encouraged people to take a break to get up and move? Or we were accepting if someone, including the instructor, came to class looking a little sweaty?