How a Post-Practice Workout Could Help Boost Learning and Retention

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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.

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Performing at the upper ranges of your ability under pressure is a unique skill – one that requires specific mental skills, and perhaps a few other tweaks in your approach to practicing too. Elite athletes have been learning these techniques for decades; if nerves and self-doubt have been recurring obstacles in your performances, I’d like to help you do the same.

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Comments

8 Responses

  1. Hmmm..being a double bassist, perhaps I should park my car quite a distance from my rehearsal space. Carrying the instrument a quarter mile or so should be a good high-intensity workout, both after and before practicing.

  2. Greetings!
    I quite love your content. I was wondering if you would be able to include your sources at the end of each blog post? I am interested in learning more and having the sources would be a wonderful thing! Thank you for your work!

    All the best,
    Eric Papa

  3. I wonder, does the exercise have to happen immediately after the practice? Say I practice in the morning, do my day job, and then go to the gym, as opposed to my normal routine which is to go to the gym first thing and then practice later in the day. Would I still get the same benefits?

    1. Hi Deanna,

      From what I can tell, I’m afraid the effect seems to come from exercising after practicing, not before. Though it doesn’t seem like the workout has to take place immediately after the learning takes place, so that could help a little with the logistical challenge of this.

  4. Turns out that my hints to my students to keep themselves, or get themselves in shape, and they will play better, has some factual bases. Pleased to know that, and I will have to modify my timing some to get some benefits, but it can be done with little stress. I do know that studying dance has a positive effect on musicianship and musicality. Do you have some research on links like that? If dance were the exercise, that would bundle things up quite nicely.

  5. As a dancer, dance teacher and also a musician, I can say that dancing requires a huge amount of musicianship. A lot more than musicians seem to realise. I am always teaching my dancers to hear in the music certain things to help them co-ordinate their movement to the music. Not just simple counting but things like hearing the different sections of the music, phrasing, chord changes. The list goes on.
    It’s a lot easier to teach musicians all of this, because we share a language for it all already. Someone with no musicianship background doesn’t have that language as is then learning it as I teach them what they need to dance well. I was taught ballet this way as a kid – using musical theory to understand what we needed to. I’ve had other teachers who haven’t got that music theory background and kinda drive me crazy with their strange made-up language to express the structure of the music as we learn it. Doesn’t worry a non-musician though!

    As for it increasing musicality? most definitely. The end goal of dancing ballet (ie what I teach) is to BE the music made visible. However I’ve encountered that approach in lots of different styles I’ve danced.
    That requires a lot of musicality. I think it works the other way round though, that dancers are drawn to dancing because they have an inherently very strong sense of musicality and dancing is their way of expressing that.

    As for the effect of the physical activity of dance possibly increasing learning, that might point to why dance is being found to be excellent for mental acuity, and retaining it as you age.

    All this is so fascinating isn’t it! I’m reading all this thinking ‘Ok so I do the music practise in the morning and dance practise in the afternoon, would that optimise everything? (And actually do I care, given I’m just playing violin purely for my own pleasure?)

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