Exercising While You Learn?

As an aspiring PE teacher, I continue to be inspired and moved by each piece of research that comes out touting the mental and learning benefits of exercise. A lot of people choose to be frustrated — and rightfully so — by the repeated slashing of PE programs in public schools across the country, despite empirical evidence that daily recess and PE help improve test scores, the ability to focus, and emotional/psychological health of students. I’ve gone through the frustration phase and it got me nowhere, so I’m now choosing to stay positive and optimistic that eventually this mountain of evidence will grow large enough that policy makers will have no choice but to take serious action.

pile of papers

So, climbing down from my soapbox…the title of this post is referring to a recent article in the Well section of the NYT entitled, “How Exercise Can Help Us Learn.” The latest conclusions from the studies cited in the article show that (a) when you choose to study (in relation to when, say, a test of knowledge might be), and (b) the intensity of the workout can absolutely impact one’s ability to retain information for use on an assessment.

Please do go ahead and read the article but I’ll try to sum up the findings CliffNotes style:

— Women were given a chapter in a textbook to read. Some of the women sat and read quietly, and some read while performing 30 minutes of vigorous cardio on an elliptical.

— Both groups were tested immediately after they read and also a day later. Given what I’m assuming was a standard recall of information type test, the women that were on the elliptical actually scored worse than the control group on the immediate testing, but the scores were a dead-heat when tested a day later.

Conclusion: If you have a test or a presentation in a few hours, trying to workout and cram at the same time might actually be harmful.


— In another study involving low-intensity biking, results showed that working out while listening to an educational audio tape actually yielded better memory retention than exercising beforehand or not exercising at all.


Conclusion: The low intensity of the exercise is not too much to overwork the brain, whereas high intensity exercise can caused neurological signals to get crossed. The low level physiological stimulation actually primes the brain for learning.


All of this has yet to be proven 100% truth, but for me it’s fascinating. Given that a lot of a typical PE class is done with what I’d classify as “low intensity” exercise, I think this only further validates PE as way to prime the brain for learning in other classes.


What do y’all think? Find any flaws in the study? Is this something you think you’ll pull from when you’re coordinating your week’s workouts?