The benefits of exercising cannot be overstated. From losing weight to having an attractive physique, there are a plethora of reasons to get off the couch and get moving. However, there’s one benefit of exercise that most people don’t know about. Exercise improves your memory and cognitive skills.
Evidence shows that exercising has a significant impact on learning. Working out maximizes the brain’s performance in various ways, thereby enabling you to retain information better. Furthermore, exercise stimulates the development of new nerve cells, which is also crucial for learning.
In most schools, physical education programs and recess are often replaced with test prep and other school projects. However, in light of these findings, it seems teachers should be encouraging students to be more active.
We take a look at how exercise impacts learning and why it should be a priority not only in school but in everyday life.
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Table of Contents
How Does Exercise Improve Brain Function?
When you put on your sneakers and decide to hit the gym, you probably think you’ll lose weight in the process, prevent some lifestyle diseases, and get a killer body from it – all good reasons to exercise. But have you ever imagined that you could also get a brain boost from exercising?
Physical activity, particularly aerobic exercise, has incredible benefits for your brain, ranging from molecular to behavioral. For starters, aerobic exercise boosts the size of your hippocampus. This is part of your brain that’s responsible for learning and verbal memory.
Exercising also increases the amount of oxygen that is pumped to your brain. Furthermore, it boosts the production of hormones that provide a favorable environment for the growth of brain cells. And that’s not all. Working out also promotes the plasticity of the brain by stimulating the growth of new connections between the brain cells.
Research has also shown that exercising increases growth factors in the brain. As a result, it becomes easier for the brain to develop new neuronal connections. And let’s not forget the feel-good benefits of exercising.
Working out has antidepressant effects that have been correlated to a drop in stress hormones. This antidepressant effect of exercising has also been linked with increased growth of cells in the hippocampus.
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How Fitness Impacts Learning
“Your brain is like a muscle; exercise it.” This is a concept that’s often taught to students to encourage them to study and introduce them to the idea of the growth mindset.
As a result, you’ll find overzealous students going above and beyond to “exercise their brains.” For some, this presents itself in solving never-ending difficult math problems; for others, it’s burning the midnight oil studying.
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The Right Way to Exercise Your Brain
According to Dr. John J. Ratey’s, author of The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, findings, solving difficult math problems won’t exercise your brain. The Harvard Medical School psychiatry professor explores the connection between physical activity and your brain.
In his book, he provides compelling evidence that proves that aerobic exercise remodels one’s brain for peak performance on many fronts. According to him, physical activity improves learning in three ways. These include:
- Exercise optimizes your mindset, thereby improving your alertness, motivation, and attention.
- Physical activity encourages the nerve cells in the brain to bind together, which is the basis for logging new information in the brain.
- It boosts the production of new cells in the hippocampus.
In short, working out not only makes your brain ready to learn new things but also makes it easier for you to retain information. Therefore, instead of spending hours on end trying to solve challenging crossword puzzles and math problems to exercise your brain, Dr. John J. Ratey suggests picking a favorite aerobic exercise.
Other Ways Exercise Impacts Learning
Dr. Ratey’s findings also showed that exercise could be used to combat some of the mental health issues that may interfere with students’ learning abilities. These include:
Anxiety and panic attacks are quite common in schools, especially during tests and cooperative learning situations. According to Dr. Ratey, exercise can help students overcome anxiety disorders. Through physical activity, students learn how to build their confidence and eliminate anxiety symptoms.
This is possible because physical activity reroutes one’s brain circuits, reduces tension in the muscles, and teaches one a different outcome to a situation that provokes anxiety. As a result, the student finds that they’re calmer, and their worrisome tendencies have subsided.
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Many things can cause a student to be stressed. From family, peer pressures, and school assignments to everyday happenings, stress may seem inevitable. However, DR. Ratey’s findings show that exercising can reduce stress among students.
Working out is a natural way of eliminating stress. Through exercise, one can reverse the adverse effects of chronic stress. Besides, physical activity encourages social interaction, which boosts confidence and maintains essential social connections that are also crucial in eliminating stress.
Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
School can be a nerve-wracking experience for students who have ADHD because they’re required to sit still, listen, and face forward without disrupting others.
Dr. Ratey encourages structured exercises for such students. Some examples of excellent activities for students with ADHD include:
- Martial arts
- Ice skating
These exercises challenge not only the body but also the brain. As a result, they’re perfect for students with ADHD because they activate the parts of the brain that control sequencing, balance, concentration, intense focus, evaluating consequences, and fine motor adjustment, among other things.
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How Much Exercise Do You Need to Improve Learning?
So, how often will you need to work out to reap the benefits of exercising for the brain? Standard recommendations state that you should engage in moderate physical activity for half an hour most days of the week. Alternatively, aim for 150 minutes of physical activity every week.
However, if this seems like a lot, you can start with a few minutes and add to it gradually as your fitness gets better. And remember, aerobic exercises are the best for your brain. Therefore, you should choose exercises that increase your heart rate, such as running, jogging, yoga, swimming, cycling, dancing, climbing, squash, or any other activity you enjoy.
Household activities that cause your heart rate to rise also count. For instance, raking leaves, mopping floors, or engaging in any other activity that breaks you out into a sweat counts as physical activity.
However, this isn’t to say that you should substitute chores for physical activity. If you can exercise, add it to your schedule so that you can reap even more benefits.
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Exercise benefits the human body in so many ways. It releases feel-good hormones that eliminate feelings of stress and anxiety, and it’s beneficial for one’s general well-being. When it comes to learning, physical activity is significantly helpful. It helps students retain information and boosts their ability to learn. Not to mention, it can be used as a coping tool for students who have ADHD.
So, if you’ve been thinking of ways to boost your student’s learning abilities, it may be time to increase those physical education classes. Let the students choose their favorite activities and monitor their progress in class. It may not happen overnight, but it will be beneficial in the long run. And don’t leave the physical activities to the students alone.
As you have seen, exercising comes with a plethora of benefits for the brain. So everyone should sign up for their favorite class and reap all the benefits!