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How going for a run may improve your memory after learning

Researchers say moderate exercise may help recall, but video games may hinder it

Photo (c) Brian Jackson - Fotolia
It’s not uncommon for students to become frustrated if they can’t get certain facts or information to stick in their memory. Likewise, parents may be wondering how they can help their children prepare for tests and ensure academic success. Well, researchers from the University of Applied Sciences Upper Austria believe the answer may lie in the activities students choose to do after they’ve learned something.

Their new study finds that going outside and participating in moderate exercise, like running, after studying can help students retain information. This approach, they say, is preferable to passive activities, like playing video games, which may hinder recall.

"Our data demonstrates that playing a video game is not helpful for improving learning effects. Instead it is advisable for youngsters, and most probably for adults too, to do moderate exercise after a learning cycle,” said lead author Dr. Harald Kindermann.

Exercise improves memory, while video games impair it

Kindermann began work on this subject after recognizing that video games may have negative implications for his own children.

"I had kids in an age where computer games started to be of high interest," he explained. "I wanted to find out how this -- and hence the increasing lack of exercise in fresh air -- impacts their ability to memorize facts for school."

The study gauged the memorization ability of 60 men between the ages of 16 and 29, who were asked to remember a range of different information, from learning routes on a city map to memorizing German-Turkish word pairs. The participants were split into three groups; one section was asked to play a violent video game after their learning period, one was asked to take a run, and the control group was asked to spend leisure time outside.

After completing the different exercises, the participants were asked to recall what they could from the learning cycles. The group that went for a run was best able to memorize the information; the control group performed slightly worse, while the video game group had “significantly impaired” recall.


The researchers have a couple of hypotheses for why the passive activity led to the worst recall, though they admit that future studies will need to be conducted to corroborate their findings. They state that both theories center around the stress hormone cortisol, which can both help and hinder memory depending on the scenario.

Their first hypothesis is that the violent video game that one group played may have tricked participants’ brains into thinking that there was an actual threat. Combined with the psychological stress of playing the game, the researchers say that participants’ brains may have focused on perceiving threats, effectively rejecting what they had just learned.

The second hypothesis states that the act of running may allow the brain to enter a kind of “memory storage mode” that allows it to retain information more easily. During physically stressful activities, excess cortisol is produced to maintain body systems, but it may have made participants more able to retain and memorize information, the researchers say.

The full study has been published in Cognitive Research Systems.

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