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How Physical Exercise Instantly Makes You a Better Language Learner

2-runnersYou already know that physical exercise is good for your health.

It lowers your chances of contracting scary things like heart disease, diabetes and various types of cancers.

But did you know it can also make you a better language learner?

Physical exercise can make you smarter, more creative and it improves your memory.

Sounds too good to be true?

Well, a bunch of research confirms the validity of these claims.

In fact, if you’re stuck in your language learning, moving your body just might be the boost you are looking for.

You Can Reap the Benefits Almost Immediately

Now, you may have heard similar claims already. For example, you may be aware that long-term exercise may help prevent Alzheimer’s disease, or that it literally makes your brain grow.

Long-term exercise also improves spatial memory. Something that could possibly come in handy if you’re into the highly effective memory palaces.

Your reaction to those claims might be: “sounds nice, but it surely takes ages to attain those benefits.”

Well, when it comes to increasing cognition, a single workout can bring instant benefits. That’s right: an immediate intelligence boost through exercise.

In a Taiwan study, 26 young men were tested for cognitive ability after each of the following three workouts (accompanied by a 5 minute warm-up and a 5 minute cooling-down):

  • a 10-minute cycle at moderate intensity*
  • a 20-minute cycle at moderate intensity*
  • a 45-minute cycle at moderate intensity*

*at approximately 65% heart rate reserve

stroop-testAfter the workout they performed a cognitive test called the Stroop Test, in which you basically have to say the color a word is displayed in, even though the word itself is a name of another color.

What they found was that the 20 minute workout at moderate intensity resulted in significantly better cognitive performance. The response time of the participants was shorter and they scored higher on accuracy, as well.

Interestingly, the shorter (10 min.) and longer (45 min.) durations showed negligible effects on cognitive performance.

Learn Vocabulary 20% Faster

Another study, executed by the University of Muenster in Germany, tested the acute effects of physical exercise on vocabulary learning.

The researchers instructed the participants to do one of these three physical actions before the learning of new words:

  • 40 minutes of low impact running
  • Two sprints of three minutes with a two-minute rest in between
  • 15 minutes of being sedentary (as the control condition)

They found that vocabulary learning was 20 percent faster after taking the two sprints as compared to the other two conditions.

So all the participants did to achieve the 20% increase in learning speed was take two sprints of three minutes each with a two-minute rest in between.

An instant memory boost in less than 10 minutes.

Exciting stuff!

More on Exercise and its Effects on Memory

The above study isn’t the only research done on the effects of exercise on memory.

In fact, there are hundreds of them, but most are rather small.

This prompted a team of researchers from Canada and Denmark to do a meta-analysis of all the relevant studies they could find. (A meta-analysis is a statistical method to combine the findings from independent studies.)

They were especially interested in the differences between acute and long-term exercise and their respective effects on both short and long-term memory.

Their findings are interesting, to say the least.

Acute exercise showed moderate effects on short-term memory, but moderate to large effects on long-term memory.

The effects of Long-term exercise aren’t so clear: they are either small (on short-term memory), or insignificant (on long-term memory).

However, based on their results, the researchers argue that acute exercise brings the memory enhancing benefits and that long-term exercise provides the necessary stimuli to optimize the responses of the molecular machinery of the brain to increase memory processing.

Now, that sounds somewhat complicated but it comes down this: to optimize the effects of physical exercise on your memory, you’ll want to exercise regularly, and do so just before your language learning activities.

If you make it a habit to do this, you’ll not only get the instant cognitive benefits, but over time, also all the long-term benefits I touched upon in this article.

How it Seems to Work

Why exercise brings all these cognitive benefits isn’t completely clear, but an important role is thought to play a brain protein called BDNF: Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor.

High levels of BDNF are associated with better cognition. BDNF is also capable of improving your neurons and even stimulate new neuron growth.

Exercise increases the blood flow in the brain and this helps release BDNF from the synapses in your brain neurons. However, more is not better. If overdone, exercise can actually decrease BDNF levels. Moderation is important. Total exhaustion does not make you a better language learner.

Why It’s Really Worth Doing This

Looking at the studies featured in this article, you might have done some quick calculations: 10 minutes of exercise to learn new words 20% faster? That means the acute effects have to last at least 50 minutes for it to be worth it.

Or you might have thought:

A 20 minute cycling session to increase my cognitive abilities? But how long after doing the exercises can I still benefit from them?

A possible answer can be found in a 2005 study on the immediate and residual effects of aerobic exercise on creative potential. The researchers found that the brain enhancing effects of exercise weren’t significantly different immediately following the physical exercise than after a period of two hours afterward.

While it’s not super conclusive, we can reasonably assume that an exercise-induced cognitive high can last for hours.

So what all this suggests, and I think it’s significant, is that you can boost your intelligence on the spot.

It’s great news, and it brings with it a sea of exciting possibilities. You can even vary the type of exercise depending on your next learning task.

Time to learn new words?

Take a few sprints, first.

Need to finally understand that part of your target language’s grammar that has haunted you for so long?

Jump on your bike and take a 20 minute ride at moderate intensity.

Of course, there’s no guarantee that you’ll understand it this time, but at least you come in with the possibility of peak cognitive performance.

Even before something like language classes or conversation exchanges, doing a bout of exercise beforehand is a great idea. Just make sure to take a shower if you are to meet someone in person. 🙂

By exercising before a language-learning task you kill two birds with one stone. You get fit, and you increase your cognitive powers to better learn your target language.

Just promise me, especially if you’ve been idle lately, that you first consult with your doctor if it’s OK for you to start exercising.

About the author: Noel van Vliet is the founder of Smart Language Learner where he shares with you his own humble language learning advice, does case studies on language learning products, and polls the experts on issues language learners face.