A Leg Up on Learning: Exercise, Study or Both?

Fitter kids better able to recall learned information than less fit ones

(RxWiki News) Kids might rather be running around outside instead of preparing for that next test, but both play and study can help the brain. That is, physical fitness and quizzing could help the child learn better in the long run.

Being physically fit helped children learn and retain new information better than kids who weren't as fit, a recent study found. In addition, the use of quizzing strategies while learning new content, as well as using visual cues to recall the information also improved kids' ability to retain new information.

The study's findings showed ways to improve learning by using initial learning strategies and fitness for children, including those who may struggle with certain subjects or need extra assistance.

"Set time for your child to study and play."

A team of investigators led by Lauren Raine, a graduate student in the Department of Kinesiology and Community Health at the University of Illinois at Urbana, looked at how aerobic exercise affected children's ability to learn, memorize and recall a series of names and locations on a fictitious map.

A group of 48 children who were 9 and 10 years of age were included in the study. The children were asked to learn the four-letter names of 10 specific regions on a map under two different conditions.

Under the first condition, the kids only studied the map, which had 20 total regions. Under the second condition, children were quizzed on the names while studying the map.

Both conditions required the same amount of time and emphasized the names of the regions for equal duration.

The kids' level of fitness was measured by calculating the maximum amount of oxygen they could consume — called the VO2 max test — while running on a treadmill and how tired they were through the course of the test.

Half of the children were considered highly fit and the rest were categorized as low.

During the recall day, which researchers referred to as the retention day, the kids were required to recall the names while looking at a blank map.

Half of the kids from the high and low fit groups were given a word bank of names at the bottom of the map to cue their memory. The rest were not given a word bank and told to draw from memory alone.

The researchers found that there were no differences between the more fit and less fit kids when first learning the regions.

When recalling the names, the higher fit kids overall outperformed the less fit children on retention day with 54 percent of the higher fit kids and about 44 percent of the lower fit kids answering correctly.

The researchers also found that learning the regions and being quizzed at the same time was a more effective way of learning the regions than studying the map alone.

On retention day, kids who were quizzed while learning the regions retained the information 64 percent of the time on average, compared to only 34 percent of the time among kids in the study-only group.

With recall, kids who were given the word bank on retention day reported the names accurately about two-thirds of the time, compared to about a third of the time among children who were not given the word bank.

"The findings in this study solidify the fact that physical education should remain a constant in our schools," said Rusty Gregory, a certified wellness coach, personal trainer and dailyRx Contributing Expert. "By increasing blood flow to the brain by engaging in aerobic fitness, children's cognitive function will improve in the form of learning and memory. Also, the sense of well-being and self-confidence that accompany aerobic fitness training contribute to a child's ability to learn."

Being fitter might have a greater impact in the most challenging situations, according to the researchers.

"Additionally, participants performed best when recall was explicitly cued with the list of region names (as compared to the free recall condition)," the researchers wrote in their report. "However, fitness did not interact with the cue condition. Therefore, it would appear that fitness does not assist children with learning in all challenging situations."

The authors said that future research should look at how the different factors affect the learning processes in children's brains for both short- and long-term retention. Other studies might also look at how learned information and skills can be transferred to other situations.

The study was published online September 11 in the journal PLOS One.

The authors declared no conflicts of interest.

Review Date: 
September 18, 2013