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Maybe it’s just my perception (or Facebook/Google’s algorithms ), but I’ve been noticing a lot of articles popping up recently about a potential connection between exercise and learning. The gist being, that working out somehow enhances our ability to learn and remember stuff.

But the details aren’t always so clear.

Like – does this mean we should go for a run before practicing? Or after? Does it have to be a pretty vigorous workout? Or would a walk suffice? How long does the workout need to be?

And maybe most importantly, how much of an impact does this really have, anyway? Is it a trivial difference? Or something more noticeable? Because you’re going to have to show me some pretty compelling numbers to get me to go for a run!

Like Flappy Bird. But not really.

A team of Canadian researchers recruited 25 individuals to participate, and gave each of them some time to learn and practice a new motor skill.

Specifically, a “visuomotor tracking task,” which involved squeezing a joystick to make a blue cursor move up or down the screen, the goal being to get the cursor to stay inside these red blocks that would move across the screen. Think Flappy Bird , but with squeezing instead of tapping.

The average improvement between the beginning and end of practice was 41%. And there was no difference between the groups. So in other words, everyone finished their practice session at about the same level of skill, and there were no visuomotor tracking task prodigies to throw off the data.

Time for some HIIT

Ten minutes after completing their practice, half of the participants (the exercise group) hopped on an exercise bike for a 15-minute high-intensity interval training session (three, 3-minute blocks at 90% VO2peak, with 2-minute recovery periods in between).

The other half of the participants hopped onto an exercise bike too – but they just sat there quietly for 15 minutes (the control group).

Back to the lab

Later that day (8 hours later, to be exact), the participants returned to the lab for a test of the skill they had practiced that morning.

And there was…no change. Both the exercisers and non-exercisers performed the task at about the same level.

Back to the lab, again

From Dal Maso, F., Desormeau, B., Boudrias, M., & Roig, M. (2018). Acute cardiovascular exercise promotes functional changes in cortico-motor networks during the early stages of motor memory consolidation. NeuroImage, 174, 380-392. doi:10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.029

However, it was a different story when they came back to the lab 24 hours later, after a night of sleep.

This time, the exercise group performed better – about 25% better to be exact – and retained much more of their skills than the non-exercising group.

So what’s going on here?

What’s the underlying mechanism?

Well, based on EEG and EMG data collected during the study, there does seem to be an underlying neurological basis for this effect.

And although researchers are still exploring this, the authors suspect that a short bout of exercise essentially helps your brain utilize its resources more efficiently, making it easier to consolidate new skills into long-term motor memory.

Ok – but this HIIT workout sounds like no walk in the park. Do we really need to exercise at this level of intensity in order to get these benefits?

Workout intensity

Well, a related study does suggest that intensity matters, in that a higher-intensity bout of exercise seems to maximize the retention effect. But fortunately, the study  showed that exercise at a moderate intensity level produces this effect too – and is significantly better than zero-intensity activity (i.e. sitting).

Take action

Back in college, my main block of practice time always took place in the evening. After dinner, and a few rounds of Mario Kart with my roommates some homework.

Anyhow, my dorm was on the other side of campus from the practice rooms, so after I was done practicing for the night, I’d always ride my bike home. And because it’s more fun to go fast than slow, it’d be a good little workout (emphasis though on the word little, as it was probably like 5 minutes door-to-door). 

Did that make a difference in how much of my practice stuck from one day to the next? I have no way of knowing at this point, but at the very least, it was a good way to release some of my practice room frustrations – and it definitely made for a more productive-feeling end to the day!

All this to say that while this may be a bit of a tougher “sell,” as far as practice hacks go, I do think there are ways of making it fit into one’s day. By looking for a way to fit in a workout after practicing instead of before – like stopping by the gym or biking home after a rehearsal. And since exercise is kind of a good thing anyway, perhaps this could be an effective way to kill two birds with one stone. To get the various physical and psychological benefits of a workout, and as a bonus, also maximize the day’s gains in the practice room.