Newsletter #298: How Bouts of Exercise Enhance Learning 🧠
“Mens sana in corpore sano” — “A healthy mind in a healthy body”
We have known for some time that physical exercise improves not merely the health and function of the body, but also enhances dimensions of cognition. In particular, a number of studies have found that exercise seems to improve motor learning (like music, video gaming, sports, operating vehicles, fine motor skills, etc).
However, we’re only just now beginning to tease out the underlying physiological mechanisms that drive this phenomenon. Furthermore, questions remain around the best way to use physical activity as a tool for boosting cognition.
For instance, how intense should exercise be, in order to derive benefits?
And when should we engage in physical activity in relation to a period of practice?
Here’s why these questions matter. We can think about the process of learning in two major steps.
Encoding is the initial input of information into long-term storage. So, that’s (hopefully) what is transpiring when you are studying or practicing a new skill. You can measure encoding by administering a test right before a study session, and then again immediately after.
Meanwhile, consolidation refers to neural processes that strengthen that memory, and enable you to retrieve it and use it later on. To assess effectiveness of consolidation, you would want to administer a test at a later date, perhaps a week or more removed from the study/practice session.
Now, how does exercise influence these two steps? Let’s start with encoding. Prior research has shown that exercise, when performed before motor practice, helps with subsequent encoding to a degree. However, there are conflicting findings, and this is probably due to variation in the intensity of the exercise being prescribed in these studies. In brief, high intensity exercise before learning seems to have a detrimental impact (maybe because it induces too much fatigue and/or gets people too amped up). Moderate intensity exercise, on the other hand, appears to enhance encoding when performed before a learning session. For instance, one trial found that acute moderate-intensity exercise before practicing piano improved performance, but HIIT did not have a beneficial effect on encoding.
What about consolidation? Well, performing exercise immediately after practicing a motor skill is associated with greater long-term retention, and this impact seems to be stronger than the effect of exercise on encoding. And this is where the higher intensity activity really shines. HIIT, when performed after practice, is significantly more effective at promoting memory consolidation than lighter intensity movement.
So in theory, this suggests that an optimized strategy for boosting motor learning would be to perform moderate intensity exercise before practice, and then do some rounds of HIIT after practicing.
And indeed, some researchers recently conducted an experiment that examines that very protocol. Let’s take a look.
This Week’s Research Highlight
Researchers at the University of Copenhagen recruited 64 healthy young men, and had the subjects visit the lab on three separate sessions.
The first visit was a screening session, during which they performed a graded exercise test to figure out how fit each person was and to establish appropriate exercise intensities. Basically, they ramped up the workload on the stationary bikes until subjects were totally exhausted, then used that max effort to define moderate- and high-intensity exercise for each individual.
At a later date, the participants returned to the lab for the main experiment. All subjects practiced a computer task in which they controlled a red cursor on a screen, using a small device that they manipulated with their thumb and index finger. Right before practicing, they underwent a performance assessment to see where each individual's baseline was. Then, after practice, they underwent a second assessment to examine how much they had gained from the training session (encoding, as described above).
Participants were divided into four different conditions:
- 20 minutes of moderate-intensity exercise before practice, then rest after practice
- Rest before practice, then 20 minutes of high-intensity exercise after practice
- 20 minutes of moderate intensity exercise before practice, then 20 minutes of HIIT after practice
- A control group did not exercise before or after practice.
Exactly seven days later, participants returned to the lab. At this third session, they underwent another performance assessment, to see how much of their skill gains they had been able to maintain from their practice session a week ago (consolidation), as well as how the exercise interventions differentially influenced their long-term skill retention.
When the researchers analyzed the data, they found that none of the exercise protocols resulted in improvements in encoding, compared to the control group. (Again, this runs counter to prior research showing that moderate activity enhances short-term learning)
However, all of the exercise conditions did result in greater retention of the acquired skill one week late, and the best results were seen in those who exercised before and after practicing. This group demonstrated the greatest total learning — meaning how much they improved in performance from baseline to the final test.
Finally, I'd like to note that incorporating exercise in this fashion may be beneficial not just for cultivating motor skills, but also for other types of learning, such as studying vocabulary.
For instance, one study that tested memory performance using a word list found that adding in 20-min bouts of exercise close to study time improved subjects' ability to remember the correct words, and they did best when they engaged in exercise both before and after they studied.
Random Trivia & Weird News
In 1882, a patent was granted to James Alexander Williams for a mousetrap incorporating a handgun into a frame, "by which animals who burrow in the ground can be deleted from existence.”
However, it doesn’t appear to have ever really taken off.
The classic spring-powered mousetrap, with which most of us are already familiar, was patented about ten years subsequently, and displaced the gun-powered counterpart.
Patent #269,766. Improvement in Animal Traps, by James A. Williams, 1882.
According to the abstract for the patent, which is available online, Williams also envisioned the device as being useful for burglary prevention.
“This invention may also be used in connection with a door or window, so as to kill any person or thing opening the door or window to which it is attached.”
What could go wrong?
Podcasts We Loved This Week
- Mark Hamilton: The soleus pushup and the health hazard of excessive sitting. Via STEM-Talk.
- Tommy Wood & Josh Turknett: Does sauna help prevent Alzheimer’s? Via Better Brain Fitness.
Products We Like
The SlackBlock is a compact balance trainer that is tailored for one-foot balance training. Simple, portable, and a great tool for improving both body and mind!
humanOS Catalog Feature of the Week
We’d like to highlight one of the lessons from our Daily Performance and Physical Activity course, which addresses the effect of physical activity on our cognitive performance.
If you think about the modern approach to physical activity, it’s kind of paradoxical.
On the one hand, we are more educated on the importance of exercise than any prior generation. And structured activity is arguably more highly prioritized than ever in history. (Which, of course, is great!)
Yet most of our time, across a day, is spent being profoundly sedentary, perhaps punctuated by an hour of exercise.
How does this contrast with our ancestral patterns of activity? And is this ideal for daily performance – not just physically, but also mentally?
Wishing you the best,