Want to Master a New Skill? Exercise Afterwards

A fascinating study from the University of Copenhagen provides a tip to those hoping to learn a new skill or remember new information: exercise may help to improve your brain’s ability to remember it.

In the study, healthy right-handed men were asked to learn a new and complicated skill on a computer that involved tracking, and a great deal of precision. Using a control similar to a joystick, they had to watch a red line as it moved across a computer screen and then trace and follow it using the controller. The objective was to remain as close to the red line as possible at all times, a complex task that required the use of both the muscles of the arm, and their minds.

The subjects were divided equally into three groups. The first third exercised at an intense but not exhausting rate for 15 minutes prior to performing the task the first time. The other two-thirds of the subjects performed the task after 15 minutes of resting. Then a third of the “resting” group exercised on the bicycle, while the other two thirds (including the third who had exercised previously) rested. Finally, all three groups were retested, performing the same task again an hour later, a day later, and a week later, to see how well they had remembered the task.

At the one-hour mark, scores in all three groups remained essentially the same. At the one-week mark, however, the results were quite different. The third of the men who had exercised just after learning the complex motor/mind task were much better at remembering how to do it effectively, and their tracing of the red lines were both more agile, and more accurate. The third of the men who had exercised before learning the task were better at it than the third that had rested and not exercised, but not nearly as adept at the task as those who had exercised afterwards.

Why would “motor memory” affect “brain memory?”

This is the question that arises as the result of these findings. “Motor memory” (sometimes erroneously called “muscle memory”) is what happens when your body and mind learn a new motor skill, and it persists over time. Think riding a bike – even twenty years after you first learned it, you still remember how.

The researchers theorize that physical exercise may have a direct effect on the brain, helping it to better consolidate and store memories that have a physical component. Study leader Marc Roig theorizes that some memories are just “imprinted” on the brain more strongly than others, and that exercise may help by intensifying the degree of that imprinting.

He points out that this is a long-term benefit rather than a short-term one. At the one-hour mark of the study, exercising either before or after learning the task had no real effect on how well it had been remembered. But at the one-week mark the exercisers remembered having learned the task better, and performed the task itself better. Dr. Roig suspects changes in blood chemistry as the mechanism that makes this happen, saying, “There is evidence that aerobic exercise produces substances in the brain, like brain-derived neurotropic factor and noradrenaline, that drive memory consolidation and learning.”

How do we take advantage of these findings when learning something new?

Whether or not scientists fully understand the “how” of this phenomenon, the findings seem pretty clear on the “when” of it. If you want to better remember a new skill that you’re learning, exercise immediately after you have been exposed to the information you want to remember.

Whether this “learning trick” will be effective when learning and storing more intellectual memories (without a motor skill component to them) is unclear, and will have to be determined in future studies. But early results of these follow-up studies are promising, and seem to indicate that schoolchildren allowed to run around after learning new mathematical tasks seems to remember the new math skills better.

The thing is, anything that gets us exercising more is a good thing period, right? So I’m definitely going to give this theory a try next time I have to learn something new. Even if it doesn’t improve my memory and brain health, it’ll improve my heart health, and that’s a “win.”

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Juliette Siegfried, MPH

Juliette Siegfried, MPH, has been involved in health communications since 1991. Shortly after obtaining her Master of Public Health degree, she began her career at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda, Maryland. Juliette now lives in Europe, where she launched ServingMed(.)com, a small medical writing and editing business for health professionals all over the world.

Juliette's resume, facebook: juliette.siegfriedmph, linkedin: juliettes, (+31) 683 673 767

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