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Aerobic Exercises Can Help Kids Remember Vocabulary Words

young girl swimming


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Key Takeaways

  • A new study finds that aerobic exercise, like swimming, can help children better retain vocabulary words.
  • Anaerobic and resting activities were not as successful in helping children remember the words, according to the results.
  • Experts note that physical exercise is beneficial to every aspect of health, and that includes academic abilities.

From flash cards to memorization exercises, educators and parents are constantly looking for ways to keep students engaged in learning. Results from a new study may offer a solution. Published in the Journal of Speech, Language, and Hearing Research, the study shows that aerobic exercise can enhance children’s ability to recall vocabulary words.

Details of the Study

Researchers at the University of Delaware studied 48 local youth, ages 6 to 12 years old. The participants were placed in two separate groups. One group took part in swimming, an aerobic activity. The other group engaged in CrossFit, an anaerobic (non-aerobic) activity.

Each group was subjected to the same type of testing. They were shown pictures and provided with a vocabulary word to explain what they were seeing. The images were items unfamiliar to the children.

After viewing five pictures and learning a new vocabulary word associated with each one, they took part in their activities of either swimming or CrossFit. When they were finished, researchers tested their retention of the words.

Giovanna Morini, PhD

Anaerobic exercise, such as a CrossFit workout, did not appear to have an effect on word learning as compared to the resting condition. Aerobic exercise, such as swimming, improved word learning by 13% in comparison to rest.

— Giovanna Morini, PhD

Each separate group of children was then shown five new images and given a new vocabulary word for each image. This time, after being taught the words, they started coloring, which is a resting activity.

Their ability to remember the new words was tested after completing the coloring activity. Researchers then compared the results of testing and word retention following each of the two sessions.

“The present study is one of the first to focus on the effect of exercise on vocabulary learning in children," states Giovanna Morini, PhD, assistant professor in the department of communication sciences and disorders at the University of Delaware. Dr. Morini served as the faculty advisor and corresponding author for the study.

The findings provide an intriguing look at the impact movement may have on academic achievement.

"Anaerobic exercise, such as a CrossFit workout, did not appear to have an effect on word learning as compared to the resting condition," Dr. Morini says. "Aerobic exercise, such as swimming, improved word learning by 13% in comparison to rest."

However, there are some factors that need additional consideration and could affect future outcomes. For instance, familiarity with the activity may have made it easier to perform. With less mental energy needed to remember steps or movements, it could have been easier to remember the new vocabulary words.

Additionally, the sample size was small, and the study was short in duration. No long-term impact is known. Still, the study results are still advantageous, says Dr. Morini.

“This study provides a potential strategy for caregivers, clinicians, and educators to support and enhance vocabulary learning,” she says.

Significance of the Findings

The results of the study highlight the importance of exercise and the impact physical movement can have on academics. They also bring attention to the need to keep kids engaged while learning.

The heightened levels of word retention and engagement during aerobic exercise may be attributed to the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). Madison Pruitt, MA, CCC-SLP, lead author of the study, calls this protein the “Miracle-Gro of the brain.”  

“The research with BDNF [and exercise] is mixed, but it increases the levels of that neurotrophic factor. Basically, what it’s doing is increasing those levels, and then once those levels are increased, it’s making learning a lot easier for the child. As those levels rise, it keeps (information) in the brain, and then it helps them to remember it,” explains Pruitt, a speech language pathologist.

In essence, the movement heightens those levels, and the kids are able to better engage with the material.

Movement integrated with the learning process can open the door to a variety of activities that can make learning seem to be more adventurous and even interesting to students. 

“I think that helps them remember, but it also just keeps it fun,” Pruitt adds.

 Putting It to Use

Having an effective way to keep children connected to the material they are learning is a valuable tool. The aerobic activity works to enhance the learning experience.

Dave Moore, PhD

If we look at the bigger picture of physical exercise and the benefits it provides to every aspect of health, including mental and intellectual ability, the evidence is rock solid for people of all ages: Exercise improves your ability to learn, to remember and to be happy and healthy.

— Dave Moore, PhD

Something as simple as going for a walk, throwing around a ball outside, or riding bikes can be a great activity. Allowing your child to come up with their own creative game involving movement can also be beneficial. The goal is to get them moving. The exercise will not only benefit their bodies but can also help them mentally and academically.

“If we look at the bigger picture of physical exercise and the benefits it provides to every aspect of health, including mental and intellectual ability, the evidence is rock solid for people of all ages: Exercise improves your ability to learn, to remember and to be happy and healthy,” concludes Dave Moore, PhD, Director of the Communication Sciences Research Center at Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center and a professor of otolaryngology and neuroscience at the University of Cincinnati College of Medicine.

What This Means For You

Children learn in a variety of ways. When a teacher or parent can find a way to integrate learning with activities that kids enjoy, it can enhance the educational experience. As the study shows, movement is good for the body and mind, and it introduces a fun element to vocabulary retention.

 

 

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Article Sources
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  1. Pruitt M, Morini G. Examining the role of physical activity on word learning in school-aged childrenJ Speech Lang Hear Res. 2021;64(5):1712-1725. doi:10.1044/2021_JSLHR-20-00359

  2. Loprinzi PD. Does brain-derived neurotrophic factor mediate the effects of exercise on memory?. Phys Sportsmed. 2019;47(4):395-405. doi:10.1080/00913847.2019.1610255