If you’re willing to sweat a little, learning a second language as an adult just got easier. While we knew that exercise is beneficial for physical and mental health, a new study suggests it can help you pick up a new language, fast.
In the study from researchers in China and Italy, published in the journal PLOS One, experts found that working out during a language lesson allows your brain to better memorize, retain and understand new words. Their evidence suggests that if we want our minds to be alert, we need to put our bodies in motion.
For the study, researchers recruited 40 college-age Chinese men and women who were trying to learn English, the New York Times explains. Researchers wanted to better understand the difference between learning a language in adulthood as opposed to childhood. As children we’re able to learn our first language easily by just “absorbing” the words around us, but as adults the ability wanes.
Participants were divided into two groups—students who would learn English through seated vocabulary classes and students who would ride an exercise bike at a “gentle pace,” starting 20 minutes before the beginning of their lessons and continuing throughout the 15-minute class.
The classes focused on vocabulary, with students trying to learn 40 words per session. Following each class, students took a vocabulary quiz. The biking students reliably out-performed those learning at a desk. Additionally, the students who exercised were able to understand sentence structure better and showed better retention than the sedentary group.
“The results suggest that physical activity during learning improves that learning,” says study co-author Simone Sulpizio, a professor of psychology and linguistics at the University Vita-Salute San Raffaele in Milan, Italy. “These improvements extend beyond simply aiding in memorization. The exercise also deepened language learners’ grasp of how to use their newly acquired words.”
The study authors warn though that their research didn’t examine how other exercise could impact language learning or whether an increase in bicycling pace would show the same results. Then there’s the unlikelihood of classrooms coming outfitted with bicycles.
“We are not suggesting that schools or teachers buy lots of bicycles,” Sulpzio said. “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.”
For those who don’t have a bicycle to use during their language lesson, keeping your mind free of distractions and remembering to make time to practice can help you learn a second language faster, too.