Want to learn a new language or ace that college exam? Previous studies have shown that exercise can help stimulate the areas of the brain that convert new information into long-term memory. A new study has taken this information one step further and found the optimal time when exercise can help maximize learning.
Building upon past research that found exercise releases biochemicals that improve mental function, scientists at the Donders Institute for Brain, Cognition and Behavior at Radboud University in the Netherlands and the University of Edinburgh in Scotland conducted a study to determine when exercise was most beneficial to learning.
Participants — an admittedly small sample of 72 healthy male and female adults — were first asked to perform a computer test that challenged their visual and spatial learning. After the test, all of the subjects watched nature documentaries, but two-thirds of them also exercised. Half of the exercisers did circuit training on a stationary bicycle for 35 minutes immediately after the test. The other half did the same exercise but not until four hours after they had been tested.
Two days later, all of the participants returned to the lab to for a recall test, and they were hooked up to MRI machines to assess their brain activity. The participants who exercised four hours after taking the computer test were able to recall what they had learned most accurately. The brainwaves of these participants also showed more consistent levels of activity, indicating that their brains were less taxed to remember what they had learned.
According to this research, the best time to exercise to optimize learning is four hours after studying. But why? That's one question the researchers have yet to answer. Another question left unanswered is the level of exercise that might best improve learning. I've run enough marathons to attest to the fact that my brain is anything but sharp during or after a tough workout. But on the flip side, researchers noted that light workouts might not give the brain enough of a biochemical boost to improve learning.
Those questions will hopefully be the focus of future studies. For those of us looking to learn new information now, it can't hurt to study up, take a break, and then get ready to hit the gym.