Here’s A New Unexpected Benefit of Exercising
  • September 18, 2017
  • I’m fidgeting at my desk, my fingers twitching as they almost unconsciously click through each of the 17 open tabs on my laptop. Beside me, a textbook is open to page 312 and has been for the last 20 minutes and a pile of flashcards remains unsifted through. One of the tabs stays open during my entire procrastination session: a practice quiz for the NASM personal training certification exam, which I’m planning on taking for real next month … if I can focus long enough to learn all the stages of the Optimum Performance Training Model.

    It’s pretty safe to say that my study habits experienced a steep decline since college. When I started studying for the NASM CPT exam, I had idyllic visions of myself at a Starbucks, or maybe Restoration Hardware, with my textbook, notebook and flash cards neatly stacked as I methodically learned everything in that book, latte in hand, en route to becoming the perfect personal trainer.

    But somewhere between the skeletal system and exercise adaptations for aging populations, I realized something I had conveniently forgotten since college: learning is kind of hard. And it definitely requires more attention to the book and less attention to creating the most aesthetic flat layout of my study materials for an Instagram post.

    Luckily, The New York Times came to my rescue to remind me of something I actually used to employ when studying for tests in college: studying while exercising in order to improve learning and retention.

    A recent study found that working out during a language class improved adult students’ abilities to memorize, retain and understand new vocabulary in a foreign language. Forty college-aged Chinese men and women were split into two groups. The control group continued to learn English as they had been doing, while the experimental group exercised while learning.

    Twenty minutes before the lesson started, these 20 students rode exercise bikes at a casual pace. They continued riding throughout the 15-ish-minute lesson, during which images and their accompanying words would flash on a screen. Forty word/image pairs were shown during the session, repeated several times.

    After the lesson was finished, the group rested for a short bit, then completed a timed vocabulary and comprehension quiz.

    The results? At the end of each lesson, the sweaty students scored higher on the vocabulary and comprehension tests than the students who sat still. Plus, the exercising group held onto their learning longer than the sedentary learning group, even without practicing in the meantime.

    Reading about this study brought me back to my old college pre-test routine. I’d type up an extravagant study guide, then bring it with me to the campus gym. I’d sit on the exercise bike or use the elliptical for about 45 minutes, reading my study guide the entire time. And, not to brag, but I did pretty well on all my exams.

    While scientists don’t have an exact explanation for the correlation between exercise and learning, they’re guessing that exercise releases certain neurochemicals that increase the number of new brain cells and the connections between neurons, which improves the brain’s plasticity and learning ability.

    My take? For me, it’s a matter of focus. While my body is in motion, I feel like my subconscious is busy keeping me moving, leaving my brain to focus on the studying I’m trying to do. It feels akin to listening to music or needing background noise while studying or working; if your brain can grasp onto something happening in the background, then the conscious part of your brain can focus easier and absorb more information. Plus, it doesn’t hurt that bringing my laptop on the elliptical is pretty inconvenient, so if I’m studying while I’m exercising, I have to cut out outside distractions.

    Also, Elle Woods dominated law school while reading on her personal stair-stepper. So the strategy has to be effective.

    Now, I know that the rest of my studying will take place while engaging in some low-intensity exercise – after all, it only seems fitting while studying to become a personal trainer.

    About Kristen Geil

    A native of Lexington, Kentucky, Kristen moved to Chicago in 2011 and received her MA in Writing, Rhetoric, and Discourse from DePaul while trying to maintain her southern accent. Kristen grew up playing sports, and since moving to Chicago, she’s fallen in love with the lakefront running path and the lively group fitness scene. Now, as a currently retired marathoner and sweat junkie, you can usually find her trying new workouts around the city and meticulously crafting Instagram-friendly smoothie bowls. Kristen came on to A Sweat Life full-time in 2018 as Editor-in-Chief, and she spends her days managing writers, building content strategy, and fighting for the Oxford comma.