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How Exercise Can Help You Master New Skills


Story at-a-glance -

  • If you want to help strengthen your memory, and be sure new information you’re receiving is successfully learned for later use and recall, a workout just after the instance of learning may be very beneficial
  • Men who exercised just after learning a new motor skills task performed more accurately and with greater agility than men who exercised prior to the learning, or not at all
  • Research shows exercise may help strengthen your memory, build new brain cells and brain cell connections, increase your IQ and make you more productive at work

By Dr. Mercola

Just as your mind forms intellectual memories, it also forms what are known as muscle or "motor" memories.

Have you ever marveled at how well you can still ride a bike, even if you haven't been on one in 20 years?

This is an example of motor memory at its best; while your muscles don't actually "remember" how to ride a bike, your brain does, and sends a complex, though seemingly effortless, array of signals to your muscles instructing them how to perform the proper movements to keep you upright and pedaling.

Motor memory is obviously extremely important for everyday tasks like walking and climbing stairs, but it's also crucial for more specialized skills – like mastering your golf swing or tennis serve.

If you're in the process of mastering a new skill, research has revealed a novel way to "cement" that knowledge into your brain for later recollection – so you can remember how to get that "hole-in-one" the same way you remember how to ride a bike…

Exercising Right After Learning Makes Long-Term Memories Stronger

Researchers at the University of Copenhagen asked men to learn a tracking skill on a computer, which required them to use a joystick to trace a red line as it squiggled across the screen. A portion of the men exercised before learning the new task, some of the men did not exercise at all, and another group exercised just after learning the new skill.

At follow-up testing an hour later, the men performed basically the same, but as time went on, those who exercised gained a clear advantage. Those who fared the best belonged to the group who exercised just after learning the task. At testing sessions one day, and then one week, later, they traced the line more accurately and with greater agility. The group that exercised before learning the new skill also performed better than those who didn't exercise (though not as well as the group that exercised after).

It appears, then, that if you want to help strengthen your memories, and be sure new information you're receiving is successfully imprinted into your brain for later use and recall, a workout just after the learning may be very beneficial. The researchers concluded:1

"These findings indicate that one bout of intense exercise performed immediately before or after practicing a motor task is sufficient to improve the long-term retention of a motor skill. The positive effects of acute exercise on motor memory are maximized when exercise is performed immediately after practice, during the early stages of memory consolidation."

Exercise Even Builds New Brain Cells

The hippocampus is a major component of your brain. It belongs to the more ancient part of your brain known as the limbic system and plays an important role in the consolidation of information from your short-term memory to long-term memory and spatial navigation. An animal study found that not only does mild exercise activate hippocampal neurons, it actually promotes their growth. In the brain, this also, in turn, helps with the creation of new brain cells.2

Another study, for instance, revealed that when mice exercised, they grew an average of 6,000 new brain cells in every cubic millimeter of tissue sampled.3 The growth occurred in the hippocampus, which, as mentioned, is considered the memory center of your brain, and the mice showed significant improvements in the ability to recall memories without any confusion.

During exercise, nerve cells in your brain also release proteins known as neurotrophic factors. One in particular, called brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), triggers numerous other chemicals that promote neural health, and has a direct benefit on cognitive functions, including memory consolidation and enhanced learning.

So while the featured study focused on exercise to benefit motor memory, research also supports its benefit for intellectual memories as well. If you want to have a memory like an elephant's… it's time to hit the gym. Some of the research highlights include:4

  • Among elementary school students, 40 minutes of daily exercise increased IQ by an average of nearly 4 points
  • Among 6th graders, the fittest students scored 30 percent higher than average students, and the less fit students scored 20 percent lower
  • Among older students, those who play vigorous sports have a 20 percent improvement in Math, Science, English and Social Studies
  • Fit 18-year-olds are more likely to go on to higher education and get full-time jobs
  • Students who exercise before class improved test scores 17 percent, and those who worked out for 40 minutes improved an entire letter grade

Even once you're in the workforce, exercise can be an invaluable tool to increase your performance and productivity. Research shows an employee who exercises regularly is 15 percent more efficient than those who do not, which means a fit employee only needs to work 42.5 hours in a week to do the same work as an average employee does in 50.5

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Think You Don't Have Enough Time to Exercise?

I understand that you are busy, but if you take time out of your day to eat and sleep, it is equally important in the long term to make time to exercise (and not in lieu of sleeping, either!). If you neglect to exercise, you are literally passing up dozens of benefits to your health, the value of which simply cannot be measured. Do you want to slow down your aging process? Lower your risk of heart disease, diabetes and cancer? Relieve pain? Fight depression? Cure insomnia?

Exercise may be the answer you've been searching for.

As for the time element, it does take some practice to make exercise part of your routine. It's generally said that it takes 3-4 weeks to turn an action into a habit, but some estimates put it at closer to 66 days, or just over two months. I find that it's easiest to schedule exercise into my day the way I would any other important event or meeting. Write it down on your calendar, add it to your smartphone reminders… do whatever you need to do to set aside the time, and then stick with it.

The time you need to devote may actually be far less than you think, too, as short periods of intense exercise, such as Peak Fitness, are proving to be even better for you than longer sessions of traditional cardio. Here's a summary of what a typical high-intensity Peak Fitness routine might look like:

  • Warm up for three minutes
  • Exercise as hard and fast as you can for 30 seconds. You should feel like you couldn't possibly go on another few seconds
  • Recover at a slow to moderate pace for 90 seconds
  • Repeat the high intensity exercise and recovery 7 more times

As you can see, the entire workout is only 20 minutes. That really is a beautiful thing. And within those 20 minutes, 75 percent of that time is warming up, recovering or cooling down. You're really only working out intensely for four minutes. If you have never done this, it's hard to believe that you can actually get that much benefit from only four minutes of intense exercise, but that's all it is. You can see a demonstration in the video below.

Since it's so intense, you only need to do Peak Fitness two or three times a week. Then, round out your exercise program with strength training, core exercises and stretching to give your brain, and body, a wonderful, healthy boost.