Friday 20 November 2015

Get moving: exercise improves motor skill learning

What if I told you there’s a way to improve your practicing efficiency and get healthier at the same time?  It’s true:  recent research has shown that moderate exercise right before learning a motor skill improves learning.

The study, published this month in the journal PLoS ONE, had three groups of people learning a motor skill task that involved using a force transducer to move a cursor through a kind of maze on the screen.  One group had to run on a treadmill for 30 minutes right before learning the task, the second group also ran on the treadmill but then got a one-hour break before doing the maze task, and the third group had a leisurely walk instead of exercising.

The researchers found that the people in the running group were the best learners, while the people who just walked or who ran and then rested learned at about the same rate.  The researchers actually looked at two different kinds of information about how the people learned:  the number of errors they made, and the speed at which they completed the task.  These two aspects of performing a motor skill are usually inversely related.  Think about playing a complicated piece of music:  if you play it slowly, you will make fewer mistakes.  If you play it quickly, you’ll make more mistakes.  This is known as the speed-accuracy trade-off, and it applies to pretty much everything we do.  So does exercising before learning alter the speed or the accuracy of the motor skill, or both?

The study found that the speed at which people moved the cursor on the screen was not affected by exercising.  Instead, people who exercised right before the learning the motor skill made fewer errors than those who didn’t exercise.  In other words, exercising increased accuracy but not speed of the motor skill.

Why does exercising help learning?  It’s been known for a while that, in general, exercise increases neuroplasticity – the capacity of the brain to change.  It’s thought that exercise increases the levels of hormones and growth factors that foster the chemical changes underlying learning.  But most of the previous studies have looked at the effect of exercise on declarative memory, the memory for facts and events, rather than motor learning.  Here we can see that exercise also boosts motor skill learning, the kind of learning that we do when we sit down to practice our musical instruments. 

So you might consider going for a run or a bike ride before your daily practice session.  We all know exercise is good for us, but it’s also good to know that it’ll help us learn our scales and pieces better.