How properly timed workouts can help with learning


By now, countless studies have shown that working out is not only good for our body, but also for our brain. Exercise lifts the spirits, reduces stress and can increase our cognitive function. To see just how much targeted workouts can influence the learning of new things, Dutch researchers took a closer look. They hit upon an interesting strategy.



This is How the Study Worked

The researchers of a study, that was published in the journal Current Biology in 2016, wanted to find out how a single work out affects learning. They showed the participants 90 different pictures that showed up on different spots on the screen. The participants had about 40 minutes to memorize where each picture was located.


After this memory exercise, they were randomly divided into 3 groups:


  1. Group: The participants did 35 minutes of interval training on a stationary bike immediately at the conclusion of the learning exercise.
  2. Group: This group also did interval training, but only 4 hours after the learning exercise.
  3. Group: The participants did not work out at all.


Two days later, the participants returned to the laboratory, and tried to remember the pictures and locations that had been presented to them. They did this in an MRI-Scanner, meaning that the researchers could also monitor brain activity during recall.



Deferred Training wins

Indeed, the participants, who worked out four hours after the learning exercise, could remember best. This was seen not only in the number of pictures that were recalled, but also in the brain scans. Those who trained later showed higher activity in the hippocampus. This is an important brain structure for learning and memory. By the way, the group that worked out immediately after the leaning exercise saw no improvement in recall capability.


Even if the researchers don’t know yet why deferred workouts showed the best results, we do know, from animal studies, that exercising improves the biochemistry of the brain, and increases our performance. Properly timed workouts can then help us to study more effectively for the next exam or test and to retain more.




van Dongen, E.V., Kersten, I.H.P., Wagner, I.C., Morris, R.G.M., & Fernandez, G. (2016). Physical Exercise Performed Four Hours after Learning Improves Memory Retention and Increases Hippocampal Pattern Similarity during Retrieval. Current Biology, 26(13), 1722-1727.