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It is generally agreed that regular exercise helps people stay fit and healthy in a variety of ways, for example, by improving flexibility, muscular strength, and cardiovascular function. We also know that exercise may have a positive effect upon mental health and wellbeing by triggering the release of endorphins – hormones that help reduce symptoms of anxiety, emotional distress and physical pain. However, a recent review of studies into the effects of exercise upon memory revealed that short bursts of physical activity may also help improve cognitive function and facilitate learning.

Entitled ‘Effects of a single exercise workout on memory and learning functions in young adults’ by Peter Blomstrand and Jan Engvall, the review was published in August 2020 in Translational Sports Medicine1. It analysed findings that were based upon a single, short workout of moderate to high intensity undertaken by young adults aged between 18 and 35 years and lasting between two minutes to one hour. Researchers had discovered that a short burst of aerobic exercise taking place immediately prior to a study period and followed by a brief recovery time resulted in improvements to numerous cognitive functions, including attention span, short term memory, long term memory, verbal eloquence, and problem-solving skills.

Although the studies had researched the positive effects of exercise upon young adults, Blomstrand and Engvall explained in their introduction how physical activity also provokes beneficial changes within children’s brains with consequential positive outcomes for their cognitive abilities and learning behaviours. For example, when children engage in aerobic exercise, there is evidence of greater blood flow, blood volume and neuroplastic function in the hippocampus area of the brain – an area key to information processing and retention.

Furthermore, while the results from the various studies had outlined positive cognitive effects of activities comprising walking, running, or cycling, the review suggests that other forms of exercise would be equally beneficial to the participants.

In conclusion, the authors of the 2020 systematic review were keen to emphasise the ‘important education-related implications’ of empowering students to use physical exercise as a brain-boosting strategy to enhance recall and retention.

1 available at: https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/tsm2.190