“In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together.” – Plato
As coaches who spend a lot of time reading, listening to podcasts, attending seminars and taking courses, we know how important learning is to our career. But, did you know that exercise is the most powerful tool we have to improve learning?
Research shows that exercise significantly improves brain plasticity, which is the ability of our brain to change its structure and cognitive function .
Exercise sends blood flow and oxygen to the brain and increases neural connectivity and cell growth in the hippocampus, which is the brains center for learning and memory.
The end result is an acute boost in attention, memory and learning immediately after exercise, as well as chronic changes that enhance our cognitive performance over longer periods of time.
Here are 6 ways you can use exercise to improve your ability to learn:
#1: Cross the Midline of the Body:
Crossing the midline incorporates the right and left hemispheres of the brains cerebral cortex, which is a critical area responsible for learning and tasks that involve attention, language and communication skills. Movements that cross the midline allow for connections in this part of the brain to be made faster and more efficiently .
#2: Complex Movements:
Complex movements activate the brains cerebellum, which is the structure specifically involved in coordinating thoughts, attention and social skills .
The more complex a movement is, the more complex the synaptic connections. These connections increase the communication among different areas of the brain resulting in faster rate of learning and recall of information .
“When we exercise, particularly if the exercise requires complex motor movement, we're exercising the area of the brain involved in the full suite of cognitive functions. We're causing the brain to fire signals along the same network of cells that solidifies their connections.” – John Ratey
Some ways you can increase the complexity of movements:
- Reduce the base of support
- Unilateral movements
- Olympic lifts
#3: Stay Aerobically Fit:
A study from the University of British Columbia found that regular aerobic exercise increases both the size and density of the brains hippocampus .
Aerobic exercise has also been shown to up regulate Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor (BDNF), which is responsible for growing new brain cells and elevating the neurotransmitters that improve memory, attention, and motivation .
It is important to remember that staying aerobically fit doesn't necessarily have to be long slow distance training. Many studies showing the positive effects of aerobic training on learning use walking as the mode of exercise. Other options such as interval training, hiking, and keeping an elevated heart rate during extended warm ups, all have positive effects on aerobic fitness as well as increasing your ability to learn.
#4: Aerobic Brain Circuits:
I love this idea from Movement As Medicine.
The goal is to keep your heart rate between 130-150 beats per minute while simultaneously doing complex movements that cross the midline for an extended period of time.
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#5: Exercise Before Mentally Demanding Work:
Acute bouts of exercise trigger the attention, motivation and memory systems in our brain, which creates the best environment for learning to take place. Even short bouts of exercise primes our brain to learn for up to 2 hours following the session .
Take advantage of this by training around your most mentally demanding work of the day. For example, if you are going to be in a seminar, exercise early in the morning so that your brain is primed to learn and pay attention. If a client has a big meeting after lunch, encourage them to take a walk at lunch and recommend to your college or high school athletes to train before studying or taking an important exam.
#6: Break up Mentally Demanding Work with Exercise:
Using exercise to take a break from mentally demanding work is a great way to boost your mental performance and come back feeling focused, organized and motivated.
Researchers from MIT looked at fatigue control during mentally demanding tasks and found that using brief, 6–7?min physical activity breaks, led to decreases in fatigue and increases in vigor, work engagement and productivity for at least 20?minutes following the break and presumably longer .
Take advantage of this by getting up and moving around every 1-1.5 hour during mentally demanding work to do some exercise. Encourage your clients who spend long stretches of the day sitting to get up and move when possible. This could be as simple as a walk around the block, a few sets of pushup, jump rope, etc.
The positive effect on learning is one of the most underrated benefits of exercise and is something you can use strategically to benefit your own career and help the people you train.
 Ratey JJ, Loehr JE. The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations. Rev Neurosci (2011) 22:171–85. doi:10.1515/RNS.2011.017
 Hannaford, Carla. Smart Moves: Why Learning Is Not All in Your Head. Arlington, Va.: Great Ocean Publishers, 1995. Print.
 Kramer AF, Erickson KI. Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends Cogn Sci (2007) 11:342–8. doi:10.1016/j.tics.2007.06.009
 Peter Blomstrand, Jan Engvall. Effects of a Single Exercise Workout on Memory and Learning Functions in Young Adults – a Systematic Review. Translational Sports Medicine, 2020; DOI: 10.1002/tsm2.190 >.
 Blasche, Gerhard et al. “Comparison of rest-break interventions during a mentally demanding task.” Stress and health : journal of the International Society for the Investigation of Stress vol. 34,5 (2018): 629-638. doi:10.1002/smi.2830