For a recent study published in PLOS One, researchers had 40 Chinese men with basic English skills study the foreign language by reading vocab words while either cycling at an easy pace or sitting still. Those in the former group learned and retained new vocabulary better.
“Exercise is one of the most powerful ways to improve learning,” says cognitive neuroscientist Sandra Bond Chapman, Ph.D., founder and chief director of the Center for BrainHealth at the University of Texas at Dallas. Physical exercise increases blood flow to the brain (particularly to your hippocampus, which is the area responsible for learning and storing information). Similarly, it amplifies the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which augments neurogenesis so new learning can take place faster, Chapman explains.
THE BOTTOM LINE
If you want to maximize studying, do so while on a stationary bike or elliptical. Ideally, use flashcards rather than an auditory program (the study participants learned via reading rather than listening). “It’s easier to learn a new language visually because you’re not having to learn the accent or intonation patterns. It takes a whole different effort to process auditory foreign language,” says Chapman. A second best may be to work out right before a study session to prime your brain, she notes. After all, previous research has found people learn new vocabulary 20 percent faster after high-intensity sprints compared to after 40 minutes of low-intensity running or 15 minutes of sitting.