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Can a Short Bout of Cardio Affect Motor Skill Learning?

Fifteen minutes of aerobic exercise done immediately after practicing a new motor skill improves long-term retention of that skill, according to findings reported in NeuroImage (2018; doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.029). Lead study author Fabien Dal Maso, assistant professor at the University of Montreal, said, “This shows that exercise is not only good for the body; it is good for the brain.” Researchers conducted the study to explore brain mechanisms underlying motor learning and the impact of cardiovascular exercise on motor memory consolidation.

Subjects were asked to practice a grip exercise requiring varying degrees of force. Afterward, some participants rested, while others did 15 minutes of aerobic exercise. Subjects underwent a variety of assessments, including skill retention tests, 8 and 24 hours after motor practice. Investigators found that those who had done the aerobic exercise had better motor skill retention 24 hours later. They had less brain activity when they repeated the motor skill task, indicating that they were connecting different areas of the brain more efficiently than those who had rested.

Study authors concluded that cardiovascular exercise, when performed in close proximity to motor practice, strengthens motor memories. “More intriguing is that the benefit of exercise was not seen the same day of the learning and the exercise, but the day after, following a night of sleep,” said Dal Maso.

“For now, the only type of motor skill tested [has pertained to] tasks involving a limited number of articulations,” said Dal Maso, “There are hypotheses that [aerobic exercise] can also have a positive effect on motor skill involving the full body, but to my knowledge, nothing has been published yet. Actually, this is a work in progress in stroke survivors [who are trying] to relearn gait, for instance.”

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