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FSU research: Add cardio to pump up math, reading scores

Frank Fincham, FSU eminent scholar and director of the FSU Family Institute
Frank Fincham, FSU eminent scholar and director of the FSU Family Institute

Exercise has long been described as the magic pill for a variety of health conditions, but new research from Florida State University shows that it could also help boost students’ academic performances.

In a paper published in the Journal of Exercise Physiology, researchers from Florida State and Larkin Community Hospital in Miami outlined new data that shows high intensity interval training is effective in helping improve students’ abilities in math and reading.

Frank Fincham, FSU eminent scholar and director of the FSU Family Institute, said researchers initially began looking at how exercise could help students who are at risk for burnout in the college environment but found other surprising results.

“This high intensity interval training is a way to get the benefits of exercise in a more time-efficient way,” Fincham said. “In addition to the cardiovascular benefits, we found that students were showing improvements in math and reading working memory.”

Improvements in working memory — or the ability to retain information while also executing another task — was unexpected, Fincham said.

As part of the study, 60 FSU freshmen were randomly assigned to two groups. One group exercised three times a week for four weeks at the FSU Wellness Center for 20 minutes each session. They were supervised by staff from the Wellness Center who took them through a cycling workout. The other group did not go through any specific workout during that time, though they could exercise on their own if that was part of their normal routine.

Both groups of students also did standard tasks where they had to retain information while also completing verbal tests and math computations. The students who participated in the exercise program showed improvements; the control group did not.

Past research studies have shown the benefits of exercise in overall cognitive function for patients with long-term diseases such as Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s, but researchers said there has been little attention paid to how a high intensity interval training program could aid a person who should be at the peak of his or her health.

“Students who are struggling with math should maybe look at doing more high intensity interval training,” said Marcos Sanchez-Gonzalez, a former FSU postdoctoral researcher in Fincham’s lab who now works at Larkin Community Hospital.

FSU doctoral student Greg Seibert and undergraduate student Megan Hutchinson also contributed to the paper.