Physical exercise during encoding improves vocabulary learning in young female adults: a neuroendocrinological study

PLoS One. 2013 May 20;8(5):e64172. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0064172. Print 2013.


Acute physical activity has been repeatedly shown to improve various cognitive functions. However, there have been no investigations comparing the effects of exercise during verbal encoding versus exercise prior to encoding on long-term memory performance. In this current psychoneuroendocrinological study we aim to test whether light to moderate ergometric bicycling during vocabulary encoding enhances subsequent recall compared to encoding during physical rest and encoding after being physically active. Furthermore, we examined the kinetics of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) in serum which has been previously shown to correlate with learning performance. We also controlled for the BDNF val66met polymorphism. We found better vocabulary test performance for subjects that were physically active during the encoding phase compared to sedentary subjects. Post-hoc tests revealed that this effect was particularly present in initially low performers. BDNF in serum and BDNF genotype failed to account for the current result. Our data indicates that light to moderate simultaneous physical activity during encoding, but not prior to encoding, is beneficial for subsequent recall of new items.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor / blood*
  • Cognition
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Kinetics
  • Learning
  • Memory, Long-Term*
  • Mental Recall*
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Vocabulary*
  • Young Adult


  • Brain-Derived Neurotrophic Factor
  • BDNF protein, human

Grants and funding

The first author (MSK) was supported by a grant from the German Research Foundation (DFG SCHM 2693/1-1) and received intramural funding for the current project within the program “Funding for outstanding junior scientists” by the Goethe University Frankfurt/Main. The funders had no role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, or preparation of the manuscript.