If you’re trying to study or learn something new, scientists may have found a new strategy: exercise. In a recent paper published in Current Biology, researchers found that exercising a few hours after studying or learning something new improves memory.
The researchers recruited 72 participants and randomly assigned them to groups. All participants learned 90 picture-location associations over a time period of about 40 minutes. They were given a recall test immediately after to use as a baseline. One group then exercised right after the recall test, one group exercised four hours later, and one group didn’t exercise at all. The exercise was the same for all participants and consisted of 35 minutes of interval training up to 80% of the person’s maximum heart rate. Participants not currently exercising, including the control group (no exercise), sat in a quiet room watching nature documentaries. 48 hours later, all participants were retested.
During the recall test, the researchers used MRI scans to further analyze the participants’ memories. They found that the delayed exercise group performed the best in the recall tests. There was no significant difference between the immediate exercise and control groups. The MRI scans also revealed something interesting; the delayed exercise group showed increased hippocampal pattern consistency when those participants gave correct responses. The hippocampus is an area of the brain heavily involved in learning and memory.
The authors aren’t sure why delayed, but not immediate, exercise improves memory. Based on previous research, the authors speculate that certain chemical compounds produced during exercise, such as catecholamines, boost memory and learning. This still doesn’t completely explain why the exercise only helped if delayed for a few hours. The researchers noted that all three groups performed very well on the recall exercises. It’s possible that the immediate exercise group was already performing so well that the exercise couldn’t help them further. A follow-up study is already planned and will hopefully provide insight as to how exactly exercise affects memory and learning.
van Dongen et al. Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Current Biology (2016).