Want to Nail That Handstand? Go For a Run

Douglas Perry

Technology, Cycling, Swimming


If like most people you are struggling to walk on your hands, a very functional skill that will confuse the zombies in the proverbial Zombie Apocalypse, then you might want to go for a quick run after you practice your upside skills.


A study in NeuroImage1 on mastering new motor skills seems to show that exercise performed immediately after practicing a new motor skill improves its long-term retention.



This might defeat the whole purpose of you avoiding running by trying to build up all these other acrobatic skills but, fortunately for you run haters, even a single 15-minute bout of cardiovascular exercise increases brain connectivity and efficiency.


The senior author on the study, Marc Roig at McGill University, had already demonstrated that exercise helps consolidate muscle or motor memory. What he and the researchers discovered this time was what the exact cause was and what was happening in the brain to make the muscles and mind interact and help the body retain motor skills.


A Video Game for Muscles

To find out, the research team asked study participants to perform two different tasks. The first, known as a "pinch task" is a bit like a muscular video game.


It consists of gripping an object akin to a gamers' joystick (and known as a dynamometer) and using varying degrees of force to move a cursor up and down to connect red rectangles on a computer screen as quickly as possible.


The task was chosen because it involved participants in motor learning as they sought to modulate the force with which they gripped the dynamometer to move the cursor around the screen. This was then followed by fifteen minutes of exercise or rest.



Participants were then asked to repeat an abridged version of this task, known as a handgrip task, at intervals of 30, 60, 90 minutes, after exercise or rest, while the researchers assessed their level of brain activity.



This task involved participants in simply repeatedly gripping the dynamometer, for a few seconds, with a similar degree of force to that which was used to reach some of the target rectangles in the "pinch task".


The final step in the study involved participants in both groups repeating the "pinch task" eight and then twenty-four hours after initially performing it, allowing the researchers to capture and compare brain activity and connectivity as the motor memories were consolidated.



Improving Brain Efficiency

The upshot of the researchers' findings was that those people who exercised were consistently able to repeat the pinch task showing that they were connecting different areas of their brains more efficiently with less brain activity than those who hadn't exercised.


So, the less brain activity meant the exercise group was retaining their newly acquired motor skills better a day after their practice.


"Because the neural activation in the brains of those who had exercised was much lower," explains Fabien Dal Maso, the first author on the paper, "the neural resources could then be put to other tasks. Exercise may help free up part of your brain to do other things."


Sleep is King

The researchers also found that after 8 hours there was little difference between the subjects of the study but a noticeable difference after 24 hours.


"What this suggests to us, and this is where we are going next with our research, is that sleep can interact with exercise to optimize the consolidation of motor memories," says Marc Roig, the senior author on the paper.


"It is very exciting to be working in this area right now because there is still so much to be learnt and the research opens doors to health interventions that can potentially make a big difference to people's lives."



1. Fabien Dal Maso, Bennet Desormeau, Marie-Hélène Boudrias, Marc Roig. Acute cardiovascular exercise promotes functional changes in cortico-motor networks during the early stages of motor memory consolidation. NeuroImage, 2018; 174: 380 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.029

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