Want to make a new skill stick? Or make sure you don’t forget something you just learned? Follow it up with a bout of high-intensity cardio. That’s the finding of the latest study to look at how exercise affects your brain—and you can really use this one to make your brain more powerful.

The study: Researchers had 25 people learn a new motor skill—in this case, using a video game–like joystick to track rectangles on a monitor. Afterward, one half of the participants did some high-intensity cycling on exercise bikes while the other half rested. All participants practiced the skill a few more times that day and then came back and tried it again the next day.

And on that next day, the group that had exercised after the first learning session performed the new skill significantly better that the nonexercisers.

Interestingly, when measuring the exercisers’ brain waves while they performed the skill immediately after the high-intensity cycling, the researchers found less activation in the part of the brain that controls hand movement than the nonexercisers, said Fabien Dal Maso, PhD, one of the study authors. And this was a good thing—it showed that the brains of those who had exercised didn’t have to work as hard to remember and repeat the task as the brains of those who hadn’t exercised. In other words, a single short bout of exercise had led to positive brain changes—improvements in neural connections—that helped “lock in” the skill.


Everyone can use exercise to succeed with skill development and learning, said Dr. Dal Maso. His study focused on motor skills, but he said that exercise has also been shown to improve memory skills. Creative tasks, on the other hand, are harder to assess. Creativity can’t be evaluated easily in a laboratory the way motor skills and memory skills can. But if you’re learning to play the piano, picking up a new sport, perfecting a tennis serve, working on your golf swing, memorizing facts or learning procedures at a new job, exercise can definitely make your brain more of the steel trap you’d like it to be. This finding could also apply to people who need to relearn motor skills after an injury or stroke, as part of a rehab program, Dr. Dal Maso added.

Important: When and how you exercise matters. To boost retention of new knowledge and skills…

Work out soon after learning. The participants in the latest study started their exercise 10 minutes after they finished the motor skills task, but other studies have found that there’s a window of up to two hours afterward to do a cardio workout, which gives you some flexibility if the learning happens during your workday.

Make the exercise vigorous. Only high- intensity activities have been found to promote higher retention rates among people learning a new motor skill, Dr. Dal Maso said. Those in the study did high-intensity interval training. Their exercise-bike session consisted of three three-minute blocks of pedaling at 90% of their heart rate capacity with two minutes of rest between each block. You can adapt most cardio exercises to high-intensity interval training, or if you want to work out at a vigorous but steady pace for the entire session, choose from fast cycling, running or race walking, swimming laps or even jumping rope, depending on your fitness level, and do it for 15 minutes. How to know whether you’re working out at the right intensity? It should be hard to speak more than a few words before you have to stop to take a breath, according to the American Heart Association. (Of course, if it’s been a while since you’ve regularly exercised with intensity, take your relative fitness into account and don’t plunge cold turkey into intense exercise.)

Don’t forget the warm-up and cooldown for safety. In the study, participants spent two minutes warming up before their intense cycling and then two minutes cooling down afterward. Don’t skimp on warm-up and cooldown times, but don’t count them as part of your high-intensity minutes.

Sleep on it. Memory retention also is related to getting sufficient sleep. Dr. Dal Maso’s advice: For good learning, exercise afterward…and sleep for a restorative eight hours that night.

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