How Working Out Improves Your Memory

Hit the Books on the Treadmill


As a college student familiar with juggling study time and working out during finals, I was thrilled to discover working out can actually improve your memory — but it depends on when and how you exercise. This is by no means a new discovery, and decades of research has proven the connection between physical exertion and improved memory function. Does this mean there’s another benefit tp dragging your butt to the athletic complex on a Saturday when there are no classes?

not going to the gym

A new study published in PLoS One was conducted by the Institute of Medical Psychology of Goethe University in Frankfurt, Germany. It selected 81 young women who were native German speakers and tested their memories depending on what kind of workout they did, or if they did not exercise at all, and if they studied during or after said workout.

The women were randomly divided into three groups. Each group wore headphones and listened for 30 minutes to a list of paired words — one word in German and its Polish translation. The women were asked to memorize the unfamiliar Polish word.


The three groups all performed different activities while listening. However, the first group sat for 30 minutes in silence before they sat down to listen to the recording. The second group did a light cardio workout, riding a stationary bike gently for 30 minutes while they listened to the list of words. The third group was the only group to exercise while wearing the headphones and listening to the recording. They rode a bicycle at mild intensity for half an hour while listening.


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Each group was tested on how well they remembered the words exactly two days after the experiment. All the group members recalled a few of the words they listened to, but the second group, which did a gentle bike workout for 30 minutes while they listened to the list, remembered the most. They performed significantly better than the group that exercised beforehand and the group who did not. The group that exercised beforehand only did slightly better than those who did not exercise at all.

The results have been compared with those of another study, which was presented at the American College of Sports Medicine in Indianapolis. The study took 11 female college students and had them read a dense excerpt from a college text book while exercising vigorously for 30 minutes on the elliptical machine. On a separate day they were asked to read another excerpt, but this time, sitting quietly. They were tested immediately after both sessions, and then again the day after.


The results revealed exercise did not help the students — it actually made it harder for them to retain what they’d learned. The women who exercised did worse on the immediate memory test than the other women who didn’t exercise, but on the test two days later, their results were nearly the same. Looking at the results of these studies side by side, the two most important factors between exercise and memory are the timing and intensity of the workout.

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Maren Schmidt-Kassow, one of the professors at the Institute of Medical Psychology at Goethe University in Frankfurt, said exercising during study was more effective than exercising beforehand or not at all. She also noted the mildness of the workout is what made it so beneficial. On a scientific level, light physical exercise stimulates the brain enough to elicit low levels of physiological arousal. This helps to prime the brain for the absorption of new information and helps it encode memories.


In the second study, exercise did not help the women retain anything from the text they read because they exercised intensely. This took the brain’s attention away from the reading and focused it solely on the task of exercising. Kassow explained the reason the gap between the two groups cleared up after a few days is because the effects of of physiological arousal last for a day or two after the exercise activity is completed.

dont mem

Walter Bixby, the associate professor who led the intense exercise and reading study at Elon University in North Carolina made a helpful conclusion about the experiment. He suggested if you are looking to study for a test in two hours, it would be more beneficial to sit quietly and study.

On the other hand, if your test is the next day, it may be more helpful to do a light workout while you study, just to get the brain juices flowing.

thanks brain

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