Mind & Body

You Can Learn Skills Faster With One 15-Minute Workout

Learning a new skill takes time and patience. You might struggle to coordinate your hands on the guitar and dream of the day when you'll be able to shred with ease, or step on your dance partner's feet as you strive to become a tango master. Whatever your dream, you've got to practice at it, but some ways of practicing are better than others. There's a growing body of research showing that if the skill you want to master requires motor control, then a post-practice workout might be in order.

Exercise Your Mind

You've probably done something that was "like riding a bike" — that is, you tried a skill you thought was long-forgotten, and your muscles somehow remembered how to do it. That's generally referred to as muscle memory, and although it's not actually memory kept in the muscles — it's in the brain, just like all types of memory — it is a different mechanism than the memory you use to recall the capital of Finland. One way scientists know that is by looking at people with amnesia: They can still usually learn new motor skills, even if they can't even remember the practice sessions researchers put them through.

While we've known for a while that exercise can sharpen your brain in general, it wasn't until 2012 that researcher Marc Roig tested whether exercising and practicing a motor skill in close succession made people better at that skill later on. A study that he and University of Copenhagen researchers published that year in the journal PLOS ONE showed that people who cycled for 20 minutes either before or after practicing a computer-tracking task were better at the task a week later than those who didn't exercise. Importantly, those who exercised afterward did even better than those who exercised before.

Roig, who is now an assistant professor in the School of Physical & Occupational Therapy at McGill University in Canada, has since delved further into this fascinating finding: He's studied just how soon you should exercise after learning (as soon as possible), and how intense that exercise should be (the more intense, the better). In his newest study, he set out to determine what's going on in the brains of people who perform a post-practice workout.

Brain Gainz

For the study, which was published last month in the journal NeuroImage, the researchers taught 25 people how to do a computer-tracking task that involved keeping a cursor inside of a moving target on a screen by squeezing a dynamometer — basically, a joystick that works via grip pressure instead of tilt direction. Next, half of the participants got on a stationary bike and did 15 minutes of high-intensity interval training, while the other half rested for the same amount of time. After they were done, the participants returned to the lab eight hours later and 24 hours later to do an abridged version of the computer tracking task.

Here's the twist: While they performed all of these tasks, they wore electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG) sensors to measure their brain and muscle activity. When they combed through the data, the researchers discovered that those who had exercised were not only better able to perform the tracking task 24 hours later, but had quieter, more efficient brain activity during the task than those who hadn't exercised.

They believed this was because exercise had made the connections between and within the two brain hemispheres more efficient overall. "What this means, in concrete terms, is that exercise may help free up part of your brain to do other things," Dr. Marie-Helene Boudrias, one of the senior authors on the paper, said in a statement.

Even more intriguing was the difference in performance between the eight-hour and 24-hour tests. Eight hours after they first learned the skill, there wasn't much of a difference in performance between the exercise and non-exercise groups. But a day later — that is, after a good night's sleep — the exercisers performed significantly better than the non-exercisers.

"What this suggests to us, and this is where we are going next with our research, is that sleep can interact with exercise to optimize the consolidation of motor memories," said Roig. "It is very exciting to be working in this area right now because there is still so much to be learnt and the research opens doors to health interventions that can potentially make a big difference to people's lives."

The takeaway is clear: If you're learning a new skill, make sure to include exercise as a fundamental part of your practice sessions. Hit the gym, ride your bike, or go for a run after you learn something new — and, of course, get a good night's sleep — and you may learn it faster than you'd ever believe you could.

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To learn more about learning, check out "Make It Stick: The Science of Successful Learning" by Peter C. Brown, Henry L. Roediger III, and Mark A. McDaniel. We handpick reading recommendations we think you may like. If you choose to make a purchase, Curiosity will get a share of the sale.

How Exercise Can Improve Your Memory

Written by Ashley Hamer August 1, 2018

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