Friday, October 14, 2016

Exercise Continues to Top the List of Learning Strategies

Memory and exercise have come up plenty of times in our work with students here at The Yellin Center, and we’ve written about them quite a bit, too. Only recently, though, have studies begun investigating the ways that exercise can help jump-start the parts of your brain that make memorization of academic material more achievable. Back in 2012 we reviewed research that debunked the myth of the “brain training” apps, which unfortunately continue to be popular among folks who want to improve their cognitive functioning. Since then, we’ve always been on the lookout for evidence-based strategies that can really make an impact on how kids and adults learn. Exercise began popping up more and more often as a crucial part of keeping our bodies, our brains, and our minds healthy, and it was only a matter of time before researchers started to look more closely at the relationship between movement and learning. Over the last few months we’ve seen a lot of research pointing to the positive effect of exercise on memory.

Exercising after studying, for example, can increase your test scores on an exam taken the next day. Light yoga combined with meditation improves communication in the parts of your brain concerned with memory and attention. Participating in moderate exercise four times a week can boost scores on a standardized memory test. Even exercising lightly while you’re learning new information can help you encode, or store, that information for later use. It’s not yet clear exactly how exercise leads to improved memory and attention, but at least one study found that moderate exercise leads to neurogenesis, or the growth of brain cells in the parts of your brain that deal with memory. Light activity, rather than an intense workout, may stimulate your brain just enough to prime it for learning.
We already know that exercise is important for keeping our bodies and minds healthy, but now we have an even better reason to get in those weekly 150 minutes – it’s one more evidence-based strategy for helping students learn new information. So what do we do with all this great data? Here are a few suggestions for incorporating some real-world “brain training” into your schedule:
  • Find a movement that’s fun for you, such as walking with friends through the park, riding your bike, or skateboarding.
  • Take movement breaks while you’re learning something new or studying for an exam. A five minute dance party is sure to get your blood pumping.
  • Don’t shy away from moving during learning, either. A treadmill or stationary bicycle with a book stand might work for some, while listening to material with headphones while jogging, riding a bike, or taking a brisk walk could be more enjoyable for others. When outside, always keep the volume at a level where you can still hear what’s going on around you.
  • Make the most of gym class and recess, and don’t worry so much about improving specific athletic skills. Spend the time running around and having fun. 
  • Combine movement with mindfulness, meditation, or light yoga. Focusing on our own minds and sitting with our thoughts and feelings can help us get the most out of movement. 
  • Keep it up! Finding activities that are enjoyable now will help kids stay active and healthy as they grow.

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