April 12th, 2010
03:48 PM ET

Studying the link between exercise and learning

By Elizabeth Mo
CNN Medical News Intern

Parents expect their child to work when they are sent to college, not work out. However, recent findings suggest exercise belongs in the classroom.

When Wendy Suzuki, associate professor of neuroscience, went to the gym, she noticed it was easier for her to remember facts and write grant proposals. She took this simple observation and transformed it into a course at New York University in which students perform aerobic exercises for one hour followed by one hour of lecture.

To see if exercise did improve memory and learning, Suzuki also designed another course where the lecture was the same, but there was no exercise component. At the beginning of the semester, students from both classes performed a simple test to measure the activity of the part of the brain responsible for learning. The dentate gyrus is a region of the hippocampus critical for retaining long term memory for facts and events. Exercise can target the dentate gyrus. At the end of the semester, the students performed the test again.

After comparison, “The results were significant,” Suzuki said. The test requires students to pick a certain geometric shape from other similar geometric shapes. Student who had exercised completed the test faster than their counterparts. Most studies examine the relationship between exercise and learning in the elderly; very few focus on young age groups.

“It’s pretty different, I wasn’t sure what it would be like.” said Andrew Sideris, an NYU senior, “I was happy to take it. It was a little weird, but a lot of fun.” Students such as Sideris have embraced the class. Casey Farin, another NYU senior, said, “I learned a lot about what happens to the brain when you exercise. Most people think about what happens in your muscles and heart.” She added, “I would definitely recommend this class to my friends.”

“Exercise and the Brain,” as the course is called, is not only an experiment studying the link between learning and exercise. It is also an experiment in education. It’s not recess, and it’s not quite PE. It’s something different. A course mandating exercise as part of its curriculum is unlike anything seen at any educational institution. But NYU is known for alternative classes and methods. For example, another course is devoted to playing and studying Guitar Hero.

When Suzuki first proposed the course to university administration, “They were enthusiastic.” Suzuki hopes to pave the way for a similar course at other universities as well as high schools, middle schools, and elementary schools.

The link between learning and exercise has long been established, but it’s difficult to find the application of such knowledge in today’s society. PE and recess are rapidly disappearing across the nation. According to the American Heart Association, only 4 percent of elementary schools, 8 percent of middle schools, and 2 percent of high schools provide daily physical education programs or some equivalent. Suzuki said, “You’re shooting yourself in the foot if you take away PE because you say students need to study.” As her class has shown, exercise is an important factor in learning.

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soundoff (42 Responses)

    Physical activity is a vital part of everyday life as most of us know. It has many benefits that can only help to make a person’s life more enjoyable. One thing that is often overlooked is that physical activity can have a positive effect on one's ability to learn new ideas and concepts. I think that the article said it best, "exercise belongs in the classroom." This could not be more true. Every discipline needs to have some type of physical activity to get the students ready to learn. The article shows that students are able to function at a higher rate than students that do not do physical activity before class. The students will also be more attentive throughout the day. By getting the blood flowing before class the students will have more of an opportunity to excel by being able to take in more. The article also talked about how physical education is being cut in the schools. This is a big problem because it is one less opportunity students have to get the benefits from physical activity. Each and every student should have an equal opportunity to be successful in school. Physical education is one of the areas that can have a huge impact throughout the day. What is taught in physical education will more than likely carry over into other classes throughout the day.

    April 12, 2010 at 17:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  2. Greg

    It is of vital importance for parents to teach their kids the importance of exercise at an early age. Holosfitness.com features instruction on fun activities that parents can do with their kids in order to promote exercise and health. Check out the videos and step-by-step instruction of workouts for free on Holosfitness.com.

    April 12, 2010 at 17:07 | Report abuse | Reply
  3. RAlvarez

    Wow! This article confirms a study I read. It reported that when Chinese students were asked the benefits of exercise they replied that it was to give them more energy to learn more and therefore to retain facts better. When American students were asked the same question, they reported that it was good for weight loss.

    April 12, 2010 at 22:34 | Report abuse | Reply
  4. Dr. Mama

    How great that we're starting to get evidence to support the benefits of exercise. This works for the peewee set, too! New research shows that elementary kids who have active play at recess eat a better lunch and learn better when they return to the classroom.


    April 13, 2010 at 09:20 | Report abuse | Reply
  5. Caleb Essajee

    I do sincerely believe that physical exercise in our daily life does our body good!
    Be it quarter of an hour or half!

    Despite of experiencing pains one should avoid the pains and continue with the exercises!

    It does also help us with blood circulation,burning of fats eaten and helps to avoid high cholesterol levels!

    Thus good blood circulation refreshes our mind too!

    April 13, 2010 at 12:00 | Report abuse | Reply
  6. Lucy

    Interesting. Not only is there no time in the school day for kids to get much exercise, as an overworked teacher, I have had trouble working in time after work for exercise myself! With all the after school tutoring and grading and planning, plus running off papers at lunch, it is ironic to think that I could be a better and more energetic teacher if I had more time for exercise. I will have to work it in in order to be more efficient with all of the above!

    April 14, 2010 at 00:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  7. Michael Kraten

    Dear Elizabeth:

    As a professor at the Sawyer Business School at Suffolk University in Boston, I usually teach on the 9th and 10th floors of our Beacon Hill classroom building. I've often suggested to students that they can "get their hearts pumping and minds flowing" by walking the 9 or 10 flights to the classroom (perhaps stopping once or twice along the way) instead of taking the elevator.

    I do that myself as well because I've found that the exercise stimulates my mind as well as my body, and helps me become more alert in the classroom. But I've never truly understood the physiological explanation for this outcome until I read your column.

    Thanks very much for teaching me something this morning!

    All the best,

    Mike Kraten
    (203) 383-0900

    April 15, 2010 at 08:57 | Report abuse | Reply
  8. wendy gunther

    If this is true, and my anecdotal personal experience supports it, tell me how we explain the other half of the coin: When I get off a cardio machine after an hour, I am remarkably stupid for about twenty minutes. I walk into things, I can't remember things, I make mistakes, and I shouldn't drive. Why does exercise improve learning and make you temporarily stupid at the same time?

    April 15, 2010 at 13:38 | Report abuse | Reply
  9. Michelle

    My first semester in college I made A's and B's. The second semester I worked out 2 times a week and raised my grades to all A's in a much tougher group of classes. My brain just worked better.

    April 19, 2010 at 20:26 | Report abuse | Reply
  10. Keith Kosierowski

    The only way I made it through undergrad was through exercising a Ton.

    Being an ADHD coach, and learning a good deal about nuerology through my training, there is no doubt, in my mind, the value of exercise to learning.

    Meeting a client the other day for the first time, my clearest recommendation for him to improve his life was to incorporate at least 15 minutes of exercise in his day every day...

    Take a look at the books SPARK, by John Ratey, and BRAIN GYM...

    Try this to improve retention: walk on a treadmill while you read...

    Let me know how it works for you. excite you.

    April 26, 2010 at 21:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  11. Samuel Hernandez

    I always make sure that i get an exercise each day, exercise keeps me fit and healthy.`–

    May 26, 2010 at 05:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  12. Amelia Thomas

    the best exercise are full body exercises like military press and also swimming.`;,

    July 18, 2010 at 23:11 | Report abuse | Reply
  13. Angel Baker

    i always exercise at leat 3 times a week to develope fuller muscles and cut down on body fat'`*

    October 11, 2010 at 04:44 | Report abuse | Reply
  14. Wrinkle Treatment :

    i always make sure that i take exercise at least 3 times a week`-;

    October 22, 2010 at 16:03 | Report abuse | Reply
  15. ATX Power Supply

    i do a lot of heavy exercise twice a week and it really helped my health to be on excellent condition ~'`

    December 13, 2010 at 02:59 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 4, 2012 at 17:48 | Report abuse | Reply
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    October 24, 2013 at 20:29 | Report abuse | Reply
  20. Mikey DeAngelo

    This article was good. I totally agree with the idea that exercise promotes learning. Here are some things I found through research.


    Very brief but cool stuff.

    February 28, 2014 at 18:02 | Report abuse | Reply
  21. Westwood Queenie

    This article fuels the fire for kids to have less homework and more time to get out and play outdoors or play afterschool sports! PLAY 60 is a joke if you want to get good grades in our town! There is not sufficient time for kids to "regenerate" their brains during the day and then to pile mounds of homework just adds to the "obesity" and academic "burn out" of the kids in this generation. MORE POWER TO EXERCISE!

    March 24, 2014 at 15:39 | Report abuse | Reply
  22. layciegrace

    This is not a new idea but rather a reinforced concept that learning should have physical factors in it. The mind needs to be in sync with the body. – Laye of Studygeek.org

    May 7, 2014 at 21:17 | Report abuse | Reply
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    January 4, 2015 at 05:26 | Report abuse | Reply
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Get a behind-the-scenes look at the latest stories from CNN Chief Medical Correspondent, Dr. Sanjay Gupta, Senior Medical Correspondent Elizabeth Cohen and the CNN Medical Unit producers. They'll share news and views on health and medical trends - info that will help you take better care of yourself and the people you love.