As young children, almost all of us picked up our first language easily. We didn’t have to be formally taught; we simply absorbed words and concepts.
But by early adulthood, the brain generally begins to lose some of its innate language capability. It displays less plasticity in areas of the brain related to language. As a result, for most of us, it becomes harder to learn a second language after childhood.
In recent years, research has shown that we learn differently if we also exercise. Working out during a language class sharpens people’s ability to memorize, retain and understand new vocabulary. The findings provide more evidence that to engage our minds, we should move our bodies.
Lab rodents given access to running wheels create and maintain memories better than animals that are sedentary, for instance. And students consistently perform better on academic tests if they participate in some kind of physical activity during the school day.
Many scientists suspect that exercise alters the biology of the brain in ways that make it more malleable and receptive to new information, a process that scientists refer to as plasticity.
But many questions have remained unanswered about movement and learning, including whether exercise is most beneficial before, during or after instruction and how much and what types of exercise might be best.
To see what effects exercise might have on this process, the researchers first recruited 40 college-age Chinese men and women who were trying to learn English. The students had some facility with this second language but were far from proficient.
The researchers then divided the students into two groups. Those in one group would continue to learn English as they had before, primarily while seated in rote vocabulary-memorization sessions.
The others would supplement these sessions with exercise.
Specifically, the students would ride exercise bikes at a gentle pace (about 60 percent of their maximum aerobic capacity) beginning 20 minutes before the start of the lessons and continuing throughout the 15 minutes or so of instruction.
The students completed eight vocabulary sessions over the course of two months.
And at the end of each lesson, the students who had ridden bikes performed better on the subsequent vocabulary tests than did the students who sat still.
“The results suggest that physical activity during learning improves that learning,” says Simone Sulpizio, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, Italy, and a study co-author.
Many past studies have shown that exercise prompts the release of multiple neurochemicals in the brain that increase the number of new brain cells and the connections between neurons, Dr. Sulpizio says. These effects improve the brain’s plasticity and augment the ability to learn.
From a real-world standpoint, the study’s implications might seem at first to be impractical. Few classrooms are equipped with stationary bicycles. But specialized equipment is probably unnecessary, Dr. Sulpizio says.
“We are not suggesting that schools or teachers buy lots of bicycles,” she says. “A simpler take-home message may be that instruction should be flanked by physical activity. Sitting for hours and hours without moving is not the best way to learn.”