Want the information you just learned to stick? A new study suggests hitting the gym four hours later may be the key.
Published in the journal Current Biology, the study – conducted by Dutch researchers – asked participants to match a series of 90 locations with pictures over a 40 minute timeframe. They were split into three groups: one that exercised immediately after learning, one that exercised four hours after learning and one that didn’t exercise at all. The exercise consisted of spinning with some intervals that were high intensity. Two days later, the participants returned to see how much information they retained with a recall test. During the test, the subjects were in an MRI scanner so the researchers could monitor their brain activity.
Researchers found the group that exercised four hours after learning remembered significantly more information on the recall test than the other two groups. The brain images also showed that participants that exercised four hours after learning had more specific activity in the hippocampus, a part of the brain involved in learning and memory formation, when a participant answered a question correctly.
“Our results suggest that appropriately timed physical exercise can improve long-term memory and highlight the potential of exercise as an intervention in educational and clinical settings,” said study author Guillén Fernández of the Donders Institute at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands.
While it’s unclear exactly how delayed exercise provides this “memory boost,” neurologists are not surprised by the findings.
“This study provides interesting preliminary data suggesting a positive association between exercise and memory,” says Dr. Andrew MacDougall, a neurologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital in Park Ridge, Ill. “It has often been recommended that keeping the body physically active may help slow the progression of certain neurodegenerative conditions, such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s disease. The mechanism by which physical activity may provide this benefit remains unclear, but lays some of the foundation for additional study.”
Dr. Smriti (Simi) Wagle, also a neurologist at Advocate Lutheran General Hospital, agrees that while the results are interesting, more research is necessary to fully understand the implications on learning and memory.
“I’m hoping future studies can address the optimal time to exercise for improved memory consolidation and also whether or not the beneficial effects persist longer than 48 hours,” she says.
While Dr. Wagle awaits more conclusive answers, she nevertheless suggests the study as yet another reason to recommend regular exercise to patients.