By now, most people know that long-term exercise is associated with a host of positive benefits, including greater cognitive function, mental health, and overall physical health. If you’re still not sure if running is “your thing,” here’s another reason (of which there are SO MANY) that you may want to consider more carefully.
Recently researchers have been looking into the affects of a single moderate intensity aerobic training session, and they have found that a single session can lead to immediate improvements in declarative learning and memory. When researchers at John Hopkins decided to see if these immediate benefits extended to motor learning, they discovered some surprising results.
In a new study published in PLOS ONE, researchers found that a single half-hour run can boost your “motor skill acquisition.”
Looking at 44 young, healthy adults, participants were split into two groups. In the first group, participants took part in a single 30 minute bout of moderate intensity running. They were then asked to perform a motor learning task. Some completed the task immediately after the 30 minute run, others completed it after they had done the run and also had a long rest period. Others performed the task after slow walking.
The second group took part in multiple days of training. They performed either a bout of running or slow walking immediately before motor learning on three consecutive days, and only motor learning (no exercise) on a fourth day.
Motor skill was assessed using a Sequential Visual Isometric Pinch Task (SVIPT) in which subjects were seated in front of a computer monitor and given a force transducer to hold between the thumb and index finger. Participants were then instructed to move the cursor as quickly and accurately as possible to different areas of the screen. Speed and accuracy were calculated for each subject.
The results? Researchers found that moderate intensity running led to an immediate improvement in motor acquisition for both a single session and multiple session participants, BUT it had no effect on between-day retention. The biggest improvement was found in accuracy, as opposed to speed, and was found to have the greatest affect immediately after exercise. Resting for a period of one hour after exercise diminished the effect.
Basically, moderate intensity exercise can prime the nervous system for the acquisition of new motor skills. This is important because capitalizing on this physiological change could improve the outcomes of movement rehabilitation programs of all kinds.
There are two main theories researchers formed for explaining their findings. Psychological models contend that exercise leads to increased arousal and cognitive resource allocation, which could explain why we see improved performance on cognitive tasks. Neuroendocrinological theories attribute the learning improvements to the fact that exercise causes our brain to release neurotransmitters, hormones, and other neuromodulatory substances that support cognition such as epinephrine, dopamine, serotonin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and cortisol. The fact that resting for one hour after exercise negated the effects supports the second theory more strongly.
What’s the takeaway? Timing exercise before rehab could help physical therapy patients improve more quickly. And, if you’re gearing up for an activity that requires accurate motor skills, such as playing a video game, working on your golf swing, or painting an intricate landscape, a quick run might be just what you need.