Heavy exercise temporarily depletes glycogen, a short term energy store, from the brain (after doing so from the muscles and liver). However, light exercise has a positive effect on learning ability. For example, in this article about a school in Naperville it is claimed that having gym class as the first class in the morning improves the learning abilities of the pupils.

Sound body, sound mind has long been the accepted wisdom.

But schools have traditionally promoted brains and brawn separately.

Not so at Naperville Central High School west of Chicago. Here the kids who struggle with math and reading go to gym class first.

"What we're trying to do here is jump start their brain," says Paul Zientarski, chairman of the Physical Education Department at Naperville.

Does moderate exercise correlate with learning ability and memory retention?

  • I've focused your question on the claim about learning and exercise and removed the other claims, multiple questions inside one questions are often problematic.
    – Mad Scientist
    Aug 6, 2011 at 6:23
  • Updated to remove conflicting claims between excessive exercise (related to glucagon loss) and moderate exercise in schools.
    – going
    Aug 6, 2011 at 8:36
  • I object to all changes of my original post. These aren't the questions that I had in mind, and they completely change my intent.
    – user3291
    Aug 6, 2011 at 8:52
  • 1
    I've rolled back to your original version, you can do that yourself if you don't agree with edits made to your own question. I also closed the question for now as it is too broad, containing three different questions. If you focus your question on one specific, notable claim it can be reopened. You can still edit while a question is closed, is just prevents answers. Closing is not final.
    – Mad Scientist
    Aug 6, 2011 at 8:59
  • @user02138 - Questions on this site need to reference a particular claim as stated in the FAQ. Your claims also need to be notable and be referenced where any claim is made. Your initial question attempted to compare 'too much exercise' with 'moderate exercise' and contained various questions without any notable referenced claims. If you feel your question is within the guidelines in the FAQ, please flag your post and a moderator will review.
    – going
    Aug 6, 2011 at 9:00

2 Answers 2


From Exercise and the brain: something to chew on:

Evidence is accumulating that exercise has profound benefits for brain function.
Physical activity improves learning and memory in humans and animals. Moreover, an active lifestyle might prevent or delay loss of cognitive function with aging or neurodegenerative disease.


Nutrition and exercise affect neuronal signaling pathways important for synaptic plasticity and cognitive function.

BDNF and glutamate act at receptors that regulate calcium/calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II (CaMKII) and mitogen-activated protein kinase (MAPK)/extracellular signal-regulated kinase (ERK) systems.

Flavanols might activate similar signaling pathways, raising the possibility that natural compounds have a selective neuronal receptor (? indicates a hypothetical receptor ).

BDNF also influences the phosphatidylinositol 3-kinase (PI3K)/Akt and the FOXO subfamily of forkhead transcription factors, elevating expression of genes important for learning and memory.

From Exercise is Brain Food [Abstract only ]:

In animal models, physical activity enhances memory and learning, promotes neurogenesis and protects the nervous system from injury and neurodegenerative disease.

Neurotrophins, endogenous proteins that support brain plasticity likely mediate the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain.

In clinical studies, exercise increases brain volume in areas implicated in executive processing, improves cognition in children with cerebral palsy and enhances phonemic skill in school children with reading difficulty.

In 2009 CBC News did a piece (19 min video )

about City Park High School in Saskatoon (this is an alternative school for those with learning difficulties ), that put treadmills and exercise bikes into a math classroom.

Well, the cardio equipment went in the classroom in February, and by June, pretty much all the kids had jumped a full grade in reading, writing and math.

Exercise causes the brain to create more nerve cells (neurogenesis), makes those nerves stronger, and helps them withstand stress, and improves neurotransmitter function, which helps the brain work better.

Dr. John Ratey, one of the key researchers in this area, noted not only improvements in those with ADHD, but also in those with bipolar disorder and schitzophrenia as well.

[via Trusted.MD]



This article in Yale Daily News indicates that exercise increases the expression of the BDNF protein which stimulates learning and increases plasticity of the brain. Apparently this is mostly relevant for short term memory but also has some clear positive effects on long term memory. Also Exercise: a behavioral intervention to enhance brain health and plasticity and Exercise Improves Memory Acquisition and Retrieval in the Y-Maze Task (cached PDF). Most articles I find about it refer to experiments on mice but the PDF's abstract indicates human experiments too.

Conclusion is that some regular exercise increases long and short term memory.

  • 2
    Just as a note: BDNF does millions of things and there's lots of other proteins involved in memory formation. I wouldn't take the reductionist approach of saying exercise -> BDNF -> neurogenesis -> better memory. Especially for the last step. For instance exercise increases blood and tissue oxygenation, increases blood flow, stimulates hormonal changes etc. etc. Any of those things could be implicated. Unfortunately we are far far away from understanding how memory are stored in the brain.
    – nico
    Aug 6, 2011 at 11:31

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