How to Retain More of What you Read

Thinking of sitting down with a good book that you want to learn from? Let me tell you why that may not be a good idea.

Retain more of what you read

We retain more of what we read when we are active. (Tweet That) | Share this Graphic on Pinterest | Share on Facebook

My trainer was running late for our first appointment.

I didn’t want to just sit around and get cold, so I paced my living room and I read Proverbs. The entire book.

And I remembered much of it. I made a mental note that I unfortunately forgot about for the next six years. That mental note said:

We retain more of what we read when we are active.

The research

There are countless studies that show that activity is one of the two most important keys (sleep is the other) to creativity, better decision-making, and retention of information.

In Ireland, a team of researchers discovered that our brains work better following exercise (the same is true of during exercise). They showed a rapid succession of headshots to a group of students. Each picture had the name of a total stranger (i.e. “John Smith”). After a quick break, they were asked to match the names to the photographs.

Next, half of the students were asked to sit quietly for 30 minutes. The other half rode a stationary bicycle. Then both groups repeated the memory test.

I’m sure at this point that you can guess the results. The exercise group remembered names better than they had just shortly after seeing the photographs the first time. The sitting group did not.

Why movement helps memory

Movement helps memory due to a protein known as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor).

Both groups in this experiment gave blood samples after the 30 minute sitting or exercise period. The exercise group had significantly higher levels of BDNF, which helps “to support the survival of existing neurons, and encourage the growth and differentiation of new neurons and synapses.” (From Wikipedia) In laymen’s terms, it does the body good.

So why walking while you read?

I advocate walking while reading, or at least standing while moving, because it is simple to do. I’m not suggesting you go for a stroll down a busy sidewalk, head buried in your book. I’m suggesting that you simply move around an open room, do laps around the dining room table, or even just move in place. It will significantly increase your comprehension and retention of the information. It will also increase the number of ideas you get from the reading. I noticed a significant increase in the number of written notes in the books I’ve read while walking compared to the ones I’ve read while sitting.

Not to even mention…the movement is good for your whole body. Essentially, I can exercise my body while exercising my mind. Rather than sit still and feel stiff after an hour of reading, I feel energized. Even 30 minutes of light walking while reading versus sitting can be worth 5-20 pounds a year in weight loss.

Bonus activity

If you want to throw in a few minutes of heart-pumping exercise before, during, and after your reading sessions, go right ahead. It will only increase your retention and creativity. I’ll often set the book down for 30 seconds after each chapter and run in place or do a set of pushups, jumping jacks, or squats. It really does work!

If you want to get more out of what you’re reading, get moving!

Question: What tips do you have to get more out of what you read? You can leave a comment by clicking here.


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  • brentmkelly

    Wow, I never would have thought of that, but it makes sense. I usually workout out at 5am before I do some reading so maybe that helps. I wonder if I will get some strange looks if I am doing some reading at lunch at a restaurant and start doing some push-ups.

    • That might be crossing the line Brent :)

      But, at the very least, you could walk to the restaurant or get in a one minute workout before you head to lunch. Anything to stimulate the brain like that.

  • This is great information. I listen to a ton of podcasts while I am running. (I’m hoping to add your upcoming podcast to my listening list.) My one struggle is to capture some to the things I hear. I capture many things in my mind, but it always helps to write these things down. As we move into the year, I’m planning to write more notes in my journal about what I’ve learned through listening. I need to turn that plan into action starting today. Thanks for the reminder!

    • I definitely retain more listening when I am exercising, working in the yard, or doing something physical. In fact, two of the three game-changing ideas I’ve had came while working in the yard.

      • Which is also one of the reasons I like yard work…

    • Steve Pate

      Jon I’m right there with you on finding a way to take notes while listening. I once heard on EO fire, one of John’s guess talking about an app that allows you to take notes when listening to any pod cast. I’ll look in to it and let you know if I find it.

      • That would be great, Steve. I’m wondering how it works for people while they’re running.

        • Check out Super Note and AudioNote.

          • Thanks! I just added Super Note to my phone. It looks like it will help.

  • I thought this was true. I’m finding that I come up with my best ideas while I’m working hard on my spin bike. I think the blood flow to the brain helps. I also just got a Fitbit (http://www.fitbit.com/) which measures how active you are and it has made me aware of how much I sit.

    • Steve Pate

      Has it been worth the money Jim? I’m intreaged by it. I first heard about it on Eric Fishers show, Beyond the to do list.

      • I have had it for a week and like it. I can’t sync it with my phone yet (need to upgrade). I think that will make a big difference. I just measures your steps and movements, so it does not do a good job of measuring your activity when you cycle or lift weights.

    • That totally makes sense. Overall activity is more important even than “exercise.” In other words, walking 10 miles over the course of 10 hours is much better for you long-term than 1 hour of intense exercise followed by 9 hours of sitting.

      That’s one reason why I use a standing desk and am thinking of getting a treadmill desk.

      • Kirbie Earley

        I definitely get more ideas while exercising! I’ve been out of commission for a while, must explain the dry spell :)

      • Kirbie Earley

        My brother swears by a standing desk – he has digestive and back issues and says both are better with a standing desk. I’ve never considered it – bad knees and feet.

        • I have plantar fasciitis and still manage. It allows me to stretch constantly.

          Either get an adjustable desk that you can sit and stand or just get a stool. That’s what I use so that I can sit for a few minutes here and there.

          I don’t have any research to back me up, but I’d bet it would help your knees long-term (3-4 months) because you can stretch them better standing. Even standing for 10 minutes every hour to start goes a long way.

          Another creative way to get more standing time is to have two desks. One sitting and one standing. You can get a bar table for $100 or less for the standing. And only do certain things at each.

          You might have your laptop on the standing desk and only check social media on that standing. Then add email. Or only do your calls at the standing desk, etc. Keep adding things until you are standing most of the time.

          • Kirbie Earley

            Yea, I’ve had a knee replacement, so I don’t sit or stand for long periods of time, I have to mix it up. Feet are another story. Right now I would be hard pressed to stand at my ‘away from home’ office, but I can probably figure out a way to work something up at home eventually. Got a 4 week sentence in the boot to get past first – that will give me time to think and look around…thanks for the ideas

          • For your feet…my first few weeks I stood on a memory foam pillow on top of a foam bath mat on top of carpet. Then just the bath mat. Now just the carpet. Took me two weeks to get down to just carpet. Might take you longer.

            Try that :)

            Could always get a very plush welcome mat type thing too.

          • Kirbie Earley

            I can try. I have 2 screws in each foot now – just became the proud owner of the last two 2 weeks ago. The other two are in my ankle from a previously mentioned car accident. It’s not so much getting acclimated as it is just being aware that I’m screwed together and have to remember that. I need probably a couple more weeks yet before I can try something like this – I’m still battling swelling. I do like those foam mats! They’re pretty cushy so I will try one when I can.

          • It truly might not be as feasible for you, although I would hope that you could do 15-20 minutes every 2 hours or so. That would go a long way.

            You might look into a recumbent bike desk as well. Or even a pedal thing (less than $50) that you can use at your desk. Anything to keep moving while sitting.

            Like these: http://amzn.to/N9awmJ

  • Steve Pate

    Zig Ziglar’s phrase, “your automobile can be your university.” well I took that and molded it to my world, were I have to walk a lot, so I named my boots my mobile university. And its funny, when I’m listening to Audible, I remember things from the book when I’m at different areas on the property or doing certain task. I totally remember details better when moving than just sitting in my truck or the couch reading.

    I find it funny, I’m beginning to lean more towards audio books than hardcovers. Because I retain more, most of the time when listening and working. But seeing the books on the shelf and the ability to highlight and make notes is a lot of fun for me too. I’m almost tempted to get both audio and hardcovers to even the balance.

  • Kirbie Earley

    I find that if I listen to something on my Kindle while I’m on the eliptical machine – AND I read along, I definitely recall more. I do have to be reading along though or else my mind wanders away from the reading. It’s kind of necessary anyway with a Kindle because of the pronunciations the thing comes up with. I guess I always figured it was because I was hearing and reading…now you’re saying it’s the machine. Unfortunately, I’m in a boot so no machine for a few more weeks… :/

    • Could be a combination of them. Sounds like the formula is working either way. Even in a boot, you can still get your blood flowing!

      • Kirbie Earley

        I will…I just got cut out of a cast today so I will have to build up. Can’t wreck the fix I just got :) Meanwhile, you’ve certainly given me something to think about when it comes to my reading!

  • Interesting research Matt. I know it lines up with my results. After running, I tend to be more aware and intent on what I’m doing.

  • I’ve definitely experienced this. Besides dropping 40 lbs in the past 6 months, being active has really helped my learning/reading retention. I’m thinking of switching to a standing desk at work…probably the same principle.

  • Great research, Matt! When I need to focus on a witting project I take a walk while listening to an audio book or music before hand. It really helps me jump start my brain.

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