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Light exercise while studying boosts memory-building

Published: Tuesday, Aug. 27 2013 6:00 a.m. MDT

In a recent study, volunteers who exercised performed significantly better on the memory test than they had on their first try, while the volunteers who had rested did not improve.

Associated Press

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Exercise can improve memory and recall, and perhaps even stave off memory declines associated with aging. Numerous studies over the past decades showed the positive effects of exercise on learning, but details about how to get the most benefit from exercise have remained sketchy, an Aug. 7 story in The New York Times said.

“Is it better to exercise before you learn something new? What about during? And should the exercise be vigorous or gentle?” the story asks, before highlighting two new studies that tackle those questions. Both reveal that the timing and intensity of exercise can affect your ability to remember — though not always positively.

The larger of the studies, from Germany, was published in May in PLOS ONE, an online research publication. The study’s subjects listened to lists of paired words — one a familiar German word, its partner an unfamiliar word in Polish. One group listened after sitting quietly for 30 minutes. Another group rode a stationary bike gently for 30 minutes, then listened. The third group listened while gently riding a stationary bicycle. Two days later, all subjects were tested on their new vocabulary.

The women who exercised lightly while listening had the best recall; the group that listened after sitting quietly performed worst. But the group that listened after exercising performed only slightly better than the group that did no exercise.

A study presented to the American College of Sports Medicine last May experimented with the effects of vigorous exercise on women tasked with reading a dense chapter of a college textbook. Those who exercised vigorously while reading scored lower on a recall test than those who studied while sitting quietly. However, the recall gap disappeared when the women were retested the following day.

“Light-intensity exercise will elicit low but noticeable levels of physiological arousal which, in turn, presumably help to prime the brain for the intake of new information and the encoding of that information into memories,” the New York Times said.

“If the exercise is more vigorous, however, it may overstimulate the body and brain, monopolizing more of the brain’s attentional resources and leaving fewer for the creation of robust memories,” the story continued, quoting psychology professor Maten Schmidt-Kassow of Germany’s Goethe University in Frankfurt.

A 2006 study with mice as subjects suggested that exercise can help overcome memory declines associated with aging. The study, published in the Journal of Neuroscience, found older mice housed with running wheels performed better on a maze test than younger mice housed without running wheels. The study’s authors concluded that voluntary exercise can offset some of the negative effects aging has on memory.

Email: cbaker@deseretnews.com Twitter: @celiarbaker

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