Forget Something? Run. It Improves Memory Retention

improve memory

Skip your workout to get some extra study time before the big exam? New research suggests that might be a counterproductive use of time. According to a new study published in Cognitive Systems Research, running directly after a learning period facilities memorization and increases information retention. In other words, the best thing to do after a long stint in the library is to take a few laps around it.

Dr. Kindermann and his colleagues at the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria conceived the study to see how changes in modern life affect learning. Research has long shown that exercise is good for the brain. But the exact mechanisms responsible for information retention have remained more allusive. Now we know how to improve memory.

Video Games vs. Exercise

The Austrian doctor observed that people (including his kids) were spending less leisure time exercising outdoors and more time in front of the computer. So in the ultimate parental “I-told-you-so” experiment, he created a pilot study in which 60 young men studied language-learning and then either ran or played Counter Strike, a video game his children probably play a little too much.

running improves memory
Researchers warn against playing Counter Strike after a study session. Source: Polygon

In addition to the running group and counter-strike group, a control group sat out outside and twiddled their thumbs on a park bench. After performing their respective activities, researchers quizzed the participants on the vocabulary they studied beforehand. The runners performed best on memory recall, while the video gamers lagged behind. 

Why the disparity? Researchers argue that different activities trigger the release of different transmitters, peptides, and hormones. Since different neurons fire with different activities, it creates varied context during the memory encoding phase. In particular, the researchers write that “stress can either facilitate or impair memory processes dependent on the valence of the learning material.” Therefore, physical stress (brought on by exercise) and psychological stressors (induced by stimuli like video games and movies) produce different reactions.

Dr. Kindermann theorizes that the video game simulate real-life anticipation of violence. The cortisol-inducing stress spurs the memorization process, but players memory absorbed the perceived threats at expense of the language learning information. Meanwhile, runners’ brains also shifted to memory storage mode. But since they didn’t experience a perceived threat, the runners’ brains stored the study material from earlier.

We all want to unwind after a marathon study session. A mini-marathon might be your best option.

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