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Looking to Master a Skill? New Study Shows Exercise Can Help

September 27, 2012

By Vanessa Radatus

It is a well-known fact that regular physical activity not only keeps you healthy, it can also improve brain function and memory.

But in an exciting new study, researchers at the University of Copenhagen have found that exercise can actually help you improve and even master a new skill.

Researchers studied a group of 48 young men and divided them into three groups.  They were all asked to practice a visuomotor tracking activity either before or after a period of intense exercise or without exercise at all. Afterwards, they tested the men from each group after one hour, 24 hours and then a week after the training activity to see if they had improved or retained any of those skills.

The results: Both groups who exercised before or after were able to retain the skills they had learned 24 hours after the computer program. However, compared to those who exercised before the activity, those who exercised immediately after showed better retention of the motor skill even 7 days after. Those who did not exercise at all showed no significant improvement.

So how does exercise help? The findings indicate that just one intense exercise session performed immediately before or after practicing a new skill is enough to improve long-term retention of that motor skill. Researchers suspect that exercise releases brain chemicals during the early stages of memory consolidation that make new muscle memories last for good.

The New York Times provides a detailed explanation in the article “How Exercise Can Help You Master a New Skill,” and shows another reason why exercise is so crucial.  But how can a single workout strengthen a particular skill and store it as a long-term memory in our brain? Dr. Marc Roig, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of Copenhagen suggested it could be biochemistry that makes the memory stronger:

“There is evidence that aerobic exercise produces substances in the brain, like brain-derived neurotropic factor and noradrenaline, that drive memory consolidation and learning… It may be that physical, aerobic exercise performed right after a memory has been formed intensifies the imprinting.” Read more…

Dr Roig also suggests that “timing of the exercise is critical,” For maximum effectiveness,  intense activity needs to be performed “right after exposure to the information to be remembered.”

So next time you are looking to perfect your tennis serve, baseball pitch or piano ensemble, the key could be doing 15 minutes of intense exercise immediately after you’ve practiced.

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