Marie-Hélène Budworth

Associate Professor of Human Resource Management, specializing in learning, development & motivation.

Marie-Hélène Budworth

Exercise and Learning

April 11th, 2012 · No Comments · Uncategorized

There was a really interesting piece in the New York Times today about the relationship between exercise and addictions.  Neuroscientists at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign found that mice who regularly ran on a treadmill and were given liquid cocaine were more likely to become behaviourally addicted to the substance than mice who were not regular exercisers.  The main take home message here is that exercise boasts our learning potential – for good and for evil!  How very interesting!

We have known for a long time that exercise supports learning.  If you are actively learning new material, the two most important things you can do for yourself are sleep and exercise.  Both activities encourage processes in the brain that enhance our ability to gain knowledge or acquire skills.  The interesting thing about the mouse study is that the learning that will be encouraged is not necessarily the goal directed deliberate process that comes to mind when we think about learning.  Learning, or habit formation, can be positive or negative in any context.  It might not lead to consequences as damaging as addiction but there could be some less than desirable outcomes from this process. 

I recognize that the study at Illinois looked at mice, but that is where most of understanding about behavior begins.  (Acquiring ethics approval for a study that requires the injection of liquid cocaine into the subjects is difficult enough to get for mice.)  Despite our beliefs that we are infinitely more intelligent than mice, at a cellular level our brain functions are surprisingly similar.  So please allow me to extrapolate the implications from this research to human beings. 

What if the brain function of regular exercisers is sufficiently different from non-exercisers to cause some differences in learning?  The main concern would be around the extinction of behaviours with negative consequences.  For most people, if we experience a negative consequence, we learn to do things differently the next time.  Is it possible that regular exercises will have trouble making these adjustments?  Is there a negative correlation between exercise and adaptability? 

This is all a bit of a leap, but what if… 

I could cut back on my running program on the basis that it is harming my productivity.  And here is the real take home message, can I find scientific support that will allow me to spend less time in the gym and more time with a good bottle of cabernet?


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