Physical Exercise Can Increase Children’s Vocabulary


children with books and a globe

Key Takeaways

  • Children who performed aerobic exercise before learning new words scored better on the follow-up vocabulary test.
  • With anaerobic exercise, this memory-boosting effect did not occur.
  • Anaerobic exercise usually requires more brainpower than the more “automatic” aerobic exercise. Thereby possibly preventing the memory boost.

A recent study suggests that aerobic exercise can boost children’s vocabulary.

Previous studies have shown that adults have increased brain activity after exercising. The increased blood flow helps them learn new words more easily. 

But does the same memory-boosting effect also occur in children?

Researchers Madison Pruitt and Giovanna Morini (both from the University of Delaware) set out to find out.

The results are promising:

Children who performed aerobic exercise (in this case, swimming) before learning new words scored 13% better on the follow-up vocabulary test than children who either didn’t do any exercise or performed Crossfit exercises (anaerobic exercise).

The Study

Forty-eight children (aged 6 to 12) took part in the experiment. 

Before learning new words, they had to do either one of three things: 

  1. Swim (aerobic exercise)
  2. Perform CrossFit exercises (anaerobic exercise) 
  3. Complete a coloring sheet

The children in the swimmers’ group were 13% more accurate in the final vocabulary test.

Surprisingly, the Crossfit group did not score significantly better than the children who completed the coloring sheet.

The answer to why CrossFit was less effective than swimming is that anaerobic exercise is more taxing to the brain than aerobic exercise. 

Crossfit exercises expend more brainpower than the “mindless” movements of swimming. 

Physical exercise increases brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) levels, which has been known to help encode learned words.

Aerobic exercise allows the conscious mind to rest, which seems to produce the memory-boosting effect afterward.

If the physical exercise is not “automatic,” it requires more brainpower. Therefore, anaerobic exercise doesn’t produce the same memory boost.

About the Researchers 

Madison Pruitt is a former research assistant at the University of Delaware.

She conducted the research as part of her Master’s Capstone Project. Madison graduated in 2020. She’s currently a Speech Language Pathologist at the Michael C. Riley Elementary School in Bluffton, South Carolina.

Giovanna Morini is an assistant professor at the University of Delaware. She has researched language acquisition, bilingualism, and speech perception in children.

Giovanna Morini

She was one of the researchers of a 2014 study that suggests that bilingual parents’ code-switching (using multiple languages in the same sentences when talking to children, e.g., “Dónde está la ball?”) does not delay lexical acquisition in 18- to 24-month-old children.

For more of her research, go here.

Can You Apply This to Your Language Learning? 

While this study focuses on children, researchers have known for years that exercise improves memory recall in adults too. 

As far back as 2014, I wrote an article about how physical exercise instantly makes you a better language learner.

Since then, many more studies have confirmed that exercise is good for your memory and the brain in general.

Chalk it up as another reason you should exercise.

Why Even Anaerobic Exercise Is Beneficial for the Language Learner

The research on how physical exercise can boost vocab in children suggests aerobic exercise is superior to anaerobic exercise when it comes to boosting memory.

Could be…

But don’t discard anaerobic exercise just yet: 

Even anaerobic exercise (like CrossFit, weightlifting, and yoga) is highly beneficial for language learning.

But perhaps in a more intangible way.

As anaerobic exercise requires more brainpower, it can be more challenging to execute. You’re faced with problems to solve. This ‘problem solving’ can make you mentally tougher.

Just as anaerobic exercise sometimes presents you with seemingly insurmountable obstacles, so does language learning. Personal progress in anaerobic exercise can and will spill over to your language learning.


…it’s important to note that the study above concerns itself with how a single exercise session can improve short-term memory

However, researchers now believe that any exercise that improves your fitness also improves memory function in general. And that it could at least play a small role in delaying or reducing the risk of Alzheimer’s disease.