"A bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin," one of the field's leading researchers has noted.

But it turns out working up a sweat isn't just good for making you happier and calmer. It's also the secret to a better memory too, new research suggests.

There's no shortage of tips and tricks out there to help you learn faster and recall more, but nearly all them focus on how to study -- try spacing out study sessions a particular way, for instance, or test yourself rather than reread. This latest finding, however, offers a tactic that you do not use in the library or coffee shop but at the gym.

Can you sweat your way to a better memory?

The suggestion comes from work done at the Donders Institute at the Radboud University Medical Center in the Netherlands, which examined the effects of exercise on memory. To test the connection the research team had 72 study subjects memorize 90 word associations. The participants then followed one of three protocols -- the first control group did nothing in particular, the second exercised for 35 minutes 40 minutes after studying, while the third group exercised for the same amount of time four hours later.

When the participants were tested on the word associations two days later what happened? Those that had hit the exercise bikes four hours after their study session performed remarkably better than the other two groups.

Why exercising a few hours after learning something helped cement people's memories remains unclear. It's possible it's down to the fact that exercise spurs the body to release chemicals like dopamine and norepinephrine which have been shown in other studies to affect memory. More research is needed to figure this out and also to test the perfect interval (three hours might beat four -- we don't know).

But whatever subsequent studies turn up, there's no reason anyone trying to learn something new can't put these findings to use right now. "Our results suggest that appropriately timed physical exercise can improve long-term memory and highlight the potential of exercise as an intervention in educational and clinical settings," the researchers concluded.

That means schools might want to think long and hard about how they schedule gym classes, and professionals should be thoughtful about how they order periods of learning with a bout at SoulCycle or a trip to the local running path.

(PS- if you're having a low-energy day and don't feel like hitting the gym after a study session, you might want to know that previous research has also suggested napping for less than an hour helps cement memories as well).

Published on: Jul 12, 2016
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