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A study of the relation between physical exercise and learning ability

A study of the relation between physical exercise and learning ability

Introduction: (Initial Observation)

Fitness and physical strength are usually the main goal of any physical exercise, however, certain sports promote the effects of exercise on both the mind and body. How can exercise affect our minds? What type of effects can we expect? Does physical exercise affect learning ability?

Learning ability is synonymous to mental ability and Intelligence. It is the key to human progress and mental development. Learning can also be defined as memorizing. Because of importance of learning ability many scientists study on this subject in order to learn about the factors that may affect learning ability.

Some scientists study the effect of chemicals and heavy metals on learning ability. Some study the effect of music in learning ability. Nutrition, genetics, age, disease and even weather conditions are also among the factors that have been studied for their effects on learning ability.

Learning ability has also been studied on animals, birds and even insects.

In this project we intend to study the effects of physical exercise in learning ability.


This project guide contains information that you need in order to start your project. If you have any questions or need more support about this project, click on the “Ask Question” button on the top of this page to send me a message.

If you are new in doing science project, click on “How to Start” in the main page. There you will find helpful links that describe different types of science projects, scientific method, variables, hypothesis, graph, abstract and all other general basics that you need to know.  

Project advisor

You have many options in designing memory or learning experiments and many options in compiling the results.

In one memory and learning experiment I observed that the tester, made a complex object such as a knot while participants were looking very carefully, then he asked participants to repeat the same. Use your own creativity and design your own memory or learning experiments. P.A.

Information Gathering:

Find out about different types of physical exercise. Read books, magazines or ask professionals who might know in order to learn about the effect of exercise on learning ability. Keep track of where you got your information from.

Following are samples of information that you may gather with their resources.

A study on mouse suggest that the level of physical activity can influence the expression of genes associated with learning and memory.


and http://my.webmd.com/content/article/20/1728_53270.htm

Emerging new research in animals and humans suggests physical exercise may boost brain function, improve mood, and otherwise increase learning, according to findings presented yesterday at a meeting of neuroscientists and educators. While it is too soon to conclude that children who do not exercise fare worse in school, the research raises questions about the recent national trend toward cutting physical education programs, some scientists and educators said.


Dr. Blumenthal describes an experiment conducted by his team at Duke looking at the impact of exercise on depression. They studied over 150 men and women with major depression, dividing them into three groups. Over a four month period, one group exercised, one took anti-depressants, and one did both. All the groups improved, but what was striking was that the rate of recovery for the group that did exercise alone and the group that took anti-depressants was comparable.


Does time spent playing or learning actively detract from academic achievement? Research conducted in French and Canadian schools over a period of four years shows positive effects of time spent in physical activity (Martens, 1982). The results of spending one-third of the school day in formal and less formal physical education, in art, and in music were increased fitness, improved attitudes, and slight improvements in test scores. These results are consistent with the findings of a meta-analysis of nearly 200 studies on the effect of exercise on cognitive functioning that suggest that physical activity supports learning (Etnier et al., 1997).

How to measure learning ability?

There are some commonly used methods to assess learning ability. To learn about these methods or finding books or publications about these methods, search the Internet or your local library for “Intelligence Scale”, “WAIS-R” and “WAIS-III”.

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-Revised (WAIS-R)

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale, is designed for adults, age 16-74. The 11 subtests of the WAIS-R include information, digit span, vocabulary, arithmetic, comprehension, similarities, picture completion, picture arrangement, block design, object assembly, and digit symbol. An example of questions on the subtest of similarities might be: “Describe how the following pair of words are alike or the same-hamburger and pizza.” A correct response would be “Both are things to eat.”

Other scales may include symbol search and mazes as well.

Wechsler Adult Intelligence Scale-III (WAIS-III)

The WAIS-III is an individually-administered test designed to measure the intellectual ability of adults (ages 16-89). It is published by the Psychological Corporation.

Verbal Subtests

Description Factor/Index Scores
Vocabulary Testee defines words presented orally by examiner. Verbal Orientation (VO)
Similarities Testee describes the relationship between two objects, concepts, etc. Verbal Orientation (VO)
Arithmetic Testee performs simple arithmetic operations presented by examiner orally. Working Memory (WM)
Digit Span Testee repeats a set of digits presented orally by examiner. Working Memory (WM)
Information Testee is asked general factual information. Verbal Orientation (VO)
Comprehension Testee is asked questions about social knowledge and practical information.
 Letter-Number Sequencing (a) Testee listens to a intermixed set of letters and numbers orally presented. The task for the subject is to speak aloud the numbers and then the letters in their ascending sequential order. Working Memory (WM)

(a) Can substitute if Digit Span is spoiled. This test is also shared with the Wechsler Memory Scale, Third Edition (WMS-III)

Performance Subtests

Description Factor/Index Scores
Picture Completion Subject’s ability to see details and visual recognition of objects is measured. Perceptual Organization (PO)
Symbol-Coding Subject must demonstrate visuomotor speed and scanning accuracy. Processing Speed (PS)
Block Design Subject must match blocks to geometrical patterns. Perceptual Organization (PO)
Matrix Reasoning Subject looks at geometric shapes and either names or points to name from a list of 5 options. Perceptual Organization (PO)
Picture Arrangement Subject must arrange a set of visual images in correct story sequence.
Symbol Search (b) Subject is presented with a target symbol and a set of symbols forming a group in which to search. The task for the subject is to identify the target symbol within the group. Processing Speed (PS)
 Object Assembly(c) Subject assembles pieces of a puzzle.

(b) Can substitute if Digit Symbol-Coding is spoiled.
(c) Can substitute for any Performance subtests if spoiled (for ages 16-74)


The WAIS-III was normed at the same time as the Wechsler Memory Scale, Third Edition (WMS-III). Subsequent research has shown that, across both exams, a six-factor structure accounts for score variance: verbal, perceptual, processing speed, working memory, auditory memory, and visual memory (Tulsky & Price, 2003).

Sample memory tests

How many letters can you remember?
Take a big marker and 6 pieces of cardboard. Write a few letters on each piece of card board before starting the test. Following are samples of letter combinations that you may use:







Show the board to participants for 3 seconds. Remove the card and wait for one second. Then ask the participants to write down as many letters as they can remember.

Each participant must record his/her result in a form like this:

Participant Name:………………………, Date: ………


Trial # Total number
of Letters
in the Set
Letters Remembered
1 2
2 4
3 6
4 8
5 10
6 12

How many letters from each trial did each participant remember? Is there a “pattern” to the letters that he/she remembered? For example, did they remember the first few letters better than the middle letters? Did they remember the last letters?

Record your results for each participant in a table like this. Also write the number of letters a person remembered as a percentage. For example, if he/she remembered 2 of the 4 letters presented in the second trial, then he/she has remembered 50% of the letters.

Enter the final results for each participant in a table like this:

Trial # Total number
of Letters
in the Set
Correct Letters Total number
of Letters
% of
1 2 U M
2 4 T Z L D
3 6 K X C E J O
4 8 A V C Y I S E H
5 10 L B F Q R P M A U X
6 12 Z Q E C T B U M O N R V

How many items can you remember?

Step 1: Get a tray or a large plate. (The kind of trays from the cafeteria work well). Put 10 to 20 objects on the tray, then cover them with a towel or cloth. Tell your subjects that you have a number of objects on the tray and that you want them to remember as many items as possible. Also tell them that they will have only one minute to view them. Then take off the cover from the tray and start timing one minute. After one minute, cover up the tray. Have your subjects write down all the items that they can remember.

Step 2: Without the subjects seeing, REMOVE 1 item from the tray. Show the tray and remaining items to your subjects again. Ask them, “What is missing?”. Can they guess what you removed? Ask them to write it down.

Step 3: Try it again, but this time remove 3-4 objects.


  • Tray or plate
  • 10-20 small items (like an eraser, pencil, coin, marble, etc.)
  • Cloth or towel to cover the tray


Common cents.


How many items can you remember?

How good is your memory? I will present you with a table of 25 different objects. Look at them for 30 seconds, then write down all the objects that you can remember.

How did you do? How many did you remember?

Question/ Purpose:

What do you want to find out? Write a statement that describes what you want to do. Use your observations and questions to write the statement.
The purpose of this project is to study the relationship between physical exercise and learning ability.

Does physical exercise enhance or weaken our learning ability?

Identify Variables:

When you think you know what variables may be involved, think about ways to change one at a time. If you change more than one at a time, you will not know what variable is causing your observation. Sometimes variables are linked and work together to cause something. At first, try to choose variables that you think act independently of each other.

Independent variable (also known as manipulated variable) is the exercise.

The dependent variable (also known as responding variable) is the learning ability.

Controlled variables are environmental conditions, age range, method and procedures.


Based on your gathered information, make an educated guess about what types of things affect the system you are working with. Identifying variables is necessary before you can make a hypothesis.

Following are two sample hypotheses related to the question or purpose of this project.

Physical exercise improves learning ability. My hypothesis is based on my gathered information and the fact that exercise stimulates the entire body’s metabolism. When we exercise, we consume more oxygen, burn more foods, have a higher rate of heartbeat and blood circulation. We drink more and sweat more. All these are supposed to have a higher rate of blood circulation in brain and delivering more oxygen to brain. As we already know lack of oxygen reduces brain activity and can ultimately lead to unconsciousness. So higher levels of oxygen in brain may increase the brain activity.

This other hypothesis is quite opposite the first one.

Physical exercise will reduce our learning ability by consuming our energy. My hypothesis is based my prior information that learning, thinking and other memory related activities require energy. So when energy is used for physical exercise, less energy remains for brain activities and learning.

Experiment Design:

Design an experiment to test each hypothesis. Make a step-by-step list of what you will do to answer each question. This list is called an experimental procedure. For an experiment to give answers you can trust, it must have a “control.” A control is an additional experimental trial or run. It is a separate experiment, done exactly like the others. The only difference is that no experimental variables are changed. A control is a neutral “reference point” for comparison that allows you to see what changing a variable does by comparing it to not changing anything. Dependable controls are sometimes very hard to develop. They can be the hardest part of a project. Without a control you cannot be sure that changing the variable causes your observations. A series of experiments that includes a control is called a “controlled experiment.”

If the exercise has any affect on learning ability, it might be short term effects or long term effects. If immediately after each exercise and up to a few minutes or a few hors people have a higher rate of learning ability, this is called a short term affect. On the contrary we may discover that exercise has long term effects, in other words someone who regularly does physical exercise, may maintain his/her higher learning ability up to a few months without any exercise.

The experiment number one is studying long term effects of exercise.

Experiment 1: Long term effects of exercise in learning ability

Introduction: Find a group of volunteers in the same age group for this study. Larger your group, more accurate result. Divide participants in two groups. One group are those who regularly exercise (at least two days a week). The other group are those who never exercise. Use any memory experiment or learning experiment that you know to test both groups.

Initial IQ test:

Search the Internet for IQ test and find a sample IQ test. Ask all participants to take the test. Find the range of IQ that covers about 95% of participants. Eliminate those who their IQ is below or above that range. If you can not find a better IQ test, use the following links:

Also eliminate the volunteers who have heart disease, have had head injury or have any kind of health problem.


Eliminate anyone who is currently taking medication, suffering from a disease that is related to cardiovascular irregularities, who reported that he had ever been clinically depressed or had received a head injury. From the remaining participants, select two equal size groups. One group those who regularly do physical exercise such as aerobics, swimming, play golf, walk, run, play sports such as basketball, football, soccer, volleyball. The other group those who never exercise.


Provide all participants with a memory test handouts that you prepare and related answer forms. Some tests may require your actions as well. For example you may uncover a tray with varieties of objects and let participants to look at that for 30 seconds. Then cover it again and ask them to write the name of objects that they remember from the tray contents. The tests that you choose to perform can be related to Information, Vocabulary, Comprehension. You can find more of memory tests or learning tests on the Internet or books in your local library in psychology section.

After completing these tests, present participants with a list of 12 nouns, each from five to seven letters long, which occur with similar moderate frequency in the English language and which are selected at random from a dictionary. Ask participants to study this list until they felt they could remember all the words, without using mnemonic devices. This section of the procedure is self-timed by the individual participants, much as memory tasks in everyday life may often be. When ready, participants turned the page to fill in a health and exercise questionnaire, also in their own time. The ‘health’ part of the questionnaire can be about physical or mental conditions of participant, especially a mild illness, such as high or low blood pressure and diabetes, that hold implications for cardiovascular irregularity, and with medication and subjective impressions of health and fitness. The ‘exercise’ part of the questionnaire is self-explanatory and asked about the type and frequency of exercise that each individual took. These questions serve two purposes. One is getting more information about participant that may help us in compiling the final data and drawing our conclusion. The other purpose is to let some time pass from the time that participant looked at the 12 words.

Participants will then be asked to recall as many of the list of 12 words as they could remember, in any order.

To calculate the scores, for each word that they remember correctly, give them +1. For every word that they don’t remember give them 0. For each wrong world that they think it was included, give them -1. Add the numbers to get the score for each participant.

Record the scores of the participants of each group in a separate table and calculate the average scores for each test.

Use the final results in drawing your conclusion.

Experiment 2: Short term effects of exercise

Introduction: In this experiment you take some memory tests from a group of participants, before and after a physical exercise. Arrange this experiment for early morning and ask participants not to do any physical activity before the test.

Selection: Participants can be of any age and nay sex. Do not accept anyone who is currently taking medication, suffering from a disease that is related to cardiovascular irregularities, who reported that he had ever been clinically depressed or had received a head injury.


Prepare two very similar memory tests, call them test A and test B.

Divide the participants into 2 identical group, call them group 1 and group 2.

One day in advance, give samples of tests (not real one) to all participants so they will get familiar to what you are going to do. Ask everyone to congregate at a local park or play ground next morning.

Early morning and before any exercise, give the test A to group 1 and test B to group 2. Make sure that the memory tests are not long and can be completed in about 15 minutes.

After the test, have everyone to participate in aerobic exercise for about 20 minutes. (more links 12,..)

Let everyone rest for about one minute and then give the test A to group 2 and test B to group 1.

Record and add the scores of all participants before exercise.

Record and add the scores of all participants after exercise.

Compare the total scores before and after the exercise and use it to draw a conclusion.

Materials and Equipment:

Tests and answer forms may be printed or photocopied for participants.

Sample test questions can be found in books or on the Internet. I have included some in the gathering information and the procedure section that suffice; however you may like to find more samples.

Results of Experiment (Observation):

Experiments are often done in series. A series of experiments can be done by changing one variable a different amount each time. A series of experiments is made up of separate experimental “runs.” During each run you make a measurement of how much the variable affected the system under study. For each run, a different amount of change in the variable is used. This produces a different amount of response in the system. You measure this response, or record data, in a table for this purpose. This is considered “raw data” since it has not been processed or interpreted yet. When raw data gets processed mathematically, for example, it becomes results.


Scores must be added or averages must be calculated.

Summary of Results:

Summarize what happened. This can be in the form of a table of processed numerical data, or graphs. It could also be a written statement of what occurred during experiments.

It is from calculations using recorded data that tables and graphs are made. Studying tables and graphs, we can see trends that tell us how different variables cause our observations. Based on these trends, we can draw conclusions about the system under study. These conclusions help us confirm or deny our original hypothesis. Often, mathematical equations can be made from graphs. These equations allow us to predict how a change will affect the system without the need to do additional experiments. Advanced levels of experimental science rely heavily on graphical and mathematical analysis of data. At this level, science becomes even more interesting and powerful.


Using the trends in your experimental data and your experimental observations, try to answer your original questions. Is your hypothesis correct? Now is the time to pull together what happened, and assess the experiments you did.

Related Questions & Answers:

What you have learned may allow you to answer other questions. Many questions are related. Several new questions may have occurred to you while doing experiments. You may now be able to understand or verify things that you discovered when gathering information for the project. Questions lead to more questions, which lead to additional hypothesis that need to be tested.

Possible Errors:

If you did not observe anything different than what happened with your control, the variable you changed may not affect the system you are investigating. If you did not observe a consistent, reproducible trend in your series of experimental runs there may be experimental errors affecting your results. The first thing to check is how you are making your measurements. Is the measurement method questionable or unreliable? Maybe you are reading a scale incorrectly, or maybe the measuring instrument is working erratically.

If you determine that experimental errors are influencing your results, carefully rethink the design of your experiments. Review each step of the procedure to find sources of potential errors. If possible, have a scientist review the procedure with you. Sometimes the designer of an experiment can miss the obvious.


List of References






Effect of Exercise on Learning Ability


Sample References

Arbuckle, T.Y., Gold, D. & Andres, D. (1986) Cognitive functioning of older people in relation to social and personality variables, Psychology and Aging, 1, pp. 55-62.

Baddeley, A.D. (1986) Working Memory. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Baddeley, A.D. (1997) Human Memory: theory and practice (revised edn). Hove: Psychology Press.

Baddeley, A.D. & Hitch, G.J. (1974) Working memory, in G.A. Bower (Ed.) The Psychology of Learning and Motivation, Vol. 8. New York: Academic Press.

Blumenthal, J.A., Williams, R.S., Needles, T.L. & Wallace, A.G. (1982) Psychological changes accompany aerobic exercise in healthy middle-aged adults, Psychosomatic Medicine, 44, pp. 529-536.

Cattell, R.B. (1971) Abilities: their structure, growth and action. Boston: Houghlin Mifflin.

Clarkson-Smith, L. & Hartley, A.A. (1989) Relationships between physical exercise and cognitive abilities in older adults, Psychology and Aging, 4, pp. 183-189.

Clarkson-Smith, L. & Hartley, A.A. (1990) Structural equation models of relationships between exercise and cognitive, Psychology and Aging, 5, pp. 437-446.

Cockburn, J. & Smith, P.T. (199l) The relative influence of intelligence and age on everyday memory, Journal of Gerontology: psychological sciences, 46, pp. 31-36.

Comfort, A. (1976) A Good Age. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Craik, F.I.M. & Jennings, J.M. (1992) Human memory, in F.I.M. Craik & T.A. Salthouse (Eds) The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. Hillsdale:Lawrence Erlbaum.

Cunningham, W.R., Sepcoski, C.M. & Opel. M.R. (1978) Fatigue effects on intelligence test performance in the elderly, Journal of Gerontology, 33, pp. 541-545.

Dixon, R.A. (1992) Contextual approaches to adult intellectual development, in R.J. Sternberg & C.A. Berg (Eds) Intellectual Development. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press

Eysenck, H.J. (1986) The theory of intelligence and the psychophysiology of cognition, in R.J. Sternberg (Ed.) Advances in the Psychology of Human Intelligence, Vol. 3. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Furry, C.A. & Baltes, P.B. (1973) The effect of age differences in ability: extraneous performance variables in the assessment of intelligence in children, adults and the elderly, Journal of Gerontology, 28, pp. 73-80.

Gillund, G. & Perlmutter, M. (1988) Episodic memory and knowledge interactions across adulthood, in L.L. Light & D.M. Burke (Eds) Language, Memory and Aging. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Holland, C.A. & Rabbitt, P.M.A. (1991) Ageing memory: use versus impairment, British Journal of Psychology, 82, pp. 29-38.

Horn, J.L. (1982) The theory of fluid and crystalline intelligence in relation to the concepts of cognitive psychology and aging in adulthood, in F.I.M. Craik & S. Trehub (Eds) Aging and Cognitive Processes. New York: Plenum.

Ivy, G.O., MacLeod, C.M., Petit, T.L. & Markus, E.J. (1992) A physiological framework for perceptual and cognitive changes in aging, in F.I.M. Craik & T.A. Salthouse (Eds) The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Madden, D.J., Blumenthal, J.A., Allen, P.A. & Emery, Charles F. (1992) Improving aerobic capacity in healthy older adults does not necessarily lead to improved cognitive performance, Psychology and Aging, 4, pp. 307-320.

Moskovitch, M. (1992) A neuropsychological model of memory and consciousness, in L.R. Squire & N. Butters (Eds) Neuropsychology of Memory (2nd edn). New York: Guildford.

Moskovitch, M. & Winocur, G. (1992) The neuropsychology of memory and aging, in F.I.M. Craik & T.A. Salthouse (Eds) The Handbook of Aging and Cognition. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Parkin, A.J. (1997) Memory and Amnesia, 2nd edn. Oxford: Blackwell.

Perlmutter, M. (1988a) Cognitive development in life-span perspective: from description of differences to explanation of changes, in M. Hetherington, R. Lerner & M. Perlmutter (Eds) Child Development in a Life-Span Perspective. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Perlmutter, M. (1988b) Cognitive potential throughout life, in J.E. Birren & V.L. Bengston (Eds) Emergent Theories of Aging. New York: Springer.

Rabbitt, P.M.A. (1993) Does it all go together when it goes?, Quarterly Journal of Experimental Psychology, 46A, pp. 385-434.

Rabbitt, P.M.A. (1997) Ageing and human skill: a 40th anniversary, Ergonomics, 40, pp. 962-981.

Salthouse, T.A. (1985) A Cognitive Theory of Aging. Berlin: Springer-Verlag.

Salthouse, T.A. (1991) Theoretical Perspectives on Cognitive Aging. Hillsdale: Lawrence Erlbaum.

Schaie, K.W. (1989) Individual differences in rate of cognitive changes in adulthood, in V.L. Bengston & K.W. Schaie (Eds) The Course of Later Life: research and reflections. New York: Springer.

Shimamura, A.P., Berry, J.M., Mangels, J.A., Rusting, C.L. & Jurica, P.J. (1995)

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Simons, A.D., McGowan, C.R., Epstein, L.H., Kupfer, D.J. & Robertson, J. (1985)

Exercise as a treatment for depression: an update, Clinical Psychology Review, 5, pp. 553-568.

Thorndike, E.L. & Lorge, I. (1944) The Teacher’s Word Book of 30,000 Words. New York: Teachers College Press.

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Tulving, E. (1985) How many memory systems are there? American Psychologist, 40, pp. 385-398.

Watts, F.N. (1988) Memory deficit in depression: the role of response style, in M.M. Gruneberg, P.E. Morris & R.N. Sykes (Eds) Practical Aspects of Memory: current research and issues, Vol. 2: Clinical and Educational Implications. Chichester: Wiley.

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Woods, R.T. & Britton, P.G. (1985) Clinical Psychology with the Elderly. London: Croom Helm.