This article was adapted from a combination of speeches given at the European Sports Science Conference 2018, most notably Einat Kodesh (UNIVERSITY OF HAIFA, ISRAEL).

 Dayton Kelly

Exercise has demonstrated numerous benefits to cognitive function and memory. Interestingly, it is becoming increasingly apparent that brief periods of aerobic activity can improve our capacity to learn fine motor skills (e.g. drawing a shape) and retain these skills. This exercise seems to prime the nervous system to learn new tasks and retain them.

Related Article: 3 Ways Physical Exercise Improves Cognitive Function in Middle-Aged Women

What’s the evidence?

A recent investigation which recruited 50 healthy adults assigned these individuals to one of four exercise groups before learning a star tracing task: an aerobic cycling group (5 minutes of cycling at 70% heart rate reserve), a medium intensity cycling group (five bouts of 10 second maximal cycling with 50 second breaks between), a high intensity cycling group (five bouts of 20

Exercising in the heatsecond maximal cycling with 40-second breaks between), or a control group (no exercise). Immediately after exercise, participants from each group performed 5 attempts at the star tracing task during which time and accuracy were measured to quantify learning over the trials. Twenty minutes and 24 hours following, star tracing ability was remeasured to determine if participants retained learned improvements from the initial block. It was discovered that time to complete the task rose 11.1% from post learning values in the no exercise control group, differing significantly from all exercise groups which retained the same duration or became faster by the 24-hour post-exercise trial. Slower time is likely the result of a time-accuracy tradeoff in which no exercise controls were unable to retain learned movement patterns and were thus forced to perform the movement more slowly to ensure accuracy. Similar benefits of brief bouts of exercise to in skill acquisition and skill retention have been demonstrated by numerous other authors.

Why is aerobic exercise benefiting skill acquisition?

Numerous mechanisms are thought to explain improved skill acquisition and retention including improved alertness from the release of catecholamines and the increased production of neural growth factors with exercise. While increased alertness appears the most probable explanation given the brief nature of the endurance, recent studies demonstrating increased neural plasticity with exercise training and subsequently improved rates of learning suggested the effects of exercise on the growth patterns of neurons cannot be ignored as an explanation of improved learning.

HydrationWhen selecting exercise intensity to improve learning it appears important that intensity is kept sufficiently low that individuals are not unduly fatigued prior initiation of learning. High intensity, however, appears to increase neural growth factors (important to memory retention) to a greater extent than lower intensity exercise. For this reason, the choice to perform short high intensity or short low-intensity exercise may represent a tradeoff between an improved rate of learning and an improved rate of retention. That is, brief low-intensity work may favor faster learning by minimizing the effect of fatigue but sacrifice the potential retention benefits of high-intensity exercise because fewer neural growth factors are released. Comparatively, higher intensity work which is more fatiguing but releases more growth factors may only moderately improve learning rate but greatly improve retention. This acquisition-retention trade remains largely hypothetical and will require further investigation to determine its true effects and optimize the intensity and duration of exercise to maximize both learning and retention.


Related Article: 4 Areas Of The Brain That Benefit From Exercise

The takeaway

The next time you must learn a fine motor skill is may be worth trying a series of brief bursts of jumping jacks beforehand. When choosing an intensity, try something demanding but not overly fatiguing. The evidence suggests your efforts may be rewarded with faster learning and better retention.

Additional reading:

Griffin, É. W., Mullally, S., Foley, C., Warmington, S. A., O’Mara, S. M., & Kelly, Á. M. (2011). Aerobic exercise improves hippocampal function and increases BDNF in the serum of young adult males. Physiology & behavior104(5), 934-941.

Smith, P. J., Blumenthal, J. A., Hoffman, B. M., Cooper, H., Strauman, T. A., Welsh-Bohmer, K., … & Sherwood, A. (2010). Aerobic exercise and neurocognitive performance: a meta-analytic review of randomized controlled trials. Psychosomatic Medicine72(3), 239.

You Might Like:

  • plyometric training exercises

Plyometric Training Exercises & Agility

January 16th, 2019|0 Comments

Hunter Bennett When it comes down to improving athletic performance, we often think about enhancing our training to maximize speed, power, and strength – which makes sense, as each of these plays a key role

  • Group of people doing CrossFit

What Does CrossFit Do to Your Body?

January 16th, 2019|0 Comments

Hunter Bennett As far as the world of exercise science goes, there tends to be a lot of research on most common training modalities – which is obviously a good thing. You see,

  • Alzheimer’s

Alzheimer’s Disease- Could Irisin Be the Cure?

January 11th, 2019|0 Comments

Hunter Bennett The one thing that strikes fear into the hearts of most people on this planet is the prospect of losing their mental capacity, such as having Alzheimer's. To be honest, I am no

  • Girl riding bike wearing virtual reality goggles

Virtual Reality Exercise

January 10th, 2019|0 Comments

Jessica Gillespie-Friesen What if the secret to boosting your performance at the gym was simply wearing a headset? Recent research suggests that virtual reality exercise could reduce the perception of pain and the perceived level

  • The word keto spelled with food

The Effects of Exercising On a High Fat Diet

January 8th, 2019|0 Comments

Hunter Bennett When it comes to diet, there is an incredible amount of information out there – but unfortunately, most of it is somewhat conflicting. There are certain individuals who swear by a high carbohydrate

  • Person holding a rail and stretching on a bridge

Do We Really Need A Cool Down After Exercise?

January 7th, 2019|0 Comments

Hunter Bennett I can picture it now. I finally manage to get to the end of a grueling training session, and I start preparing myself to settle down and do some light stretching, before immediately