Learning a New Skill? Going for a Ride Can Improve Your Progress

Learning a new skill with or without exercise

Researchers from the University of Copenhagen decided to test the impact of exercise on learning a new skill. They set up a study with 67 healthy men between ages 18 and 35. Interestingly, they had to exclude professional musicians and gamers. Why?

The researchers used a SVAT (sequential visuomotor accuracy tracking) task for the participants to monitor how well they learn and remember a new skill. Imagine SVAT as guiding a cursor on a screen to hit moving targets that appear in a specific sequence or at random locations. Your goal is to move the cursor accurately and quickly to match these targets as they change position, using precise hand movements. You can see why pro gamers and musicians would have a big advantage that could distort the study’s results.

The participants were divided into 4 groups after arriving to the lab for the SVAT test based on when they would exercise. The exercise consisted of 20 minutes of cycling. They started with 5 minutes of warming up at 50W and then completed 3 intervals of 3 minutes each separated by 2 minutes of easy spinning at 50W to recover. The intervals performed before the SVAT task were done at moderate intensity 45% of max power, intervals performed after were completed at a high intensity 90% of max power.

  • Pre-exercise: This group exercised moderately before skill practice and rested after
  • Post-exercise: This group rested before skill practice and exercised intensely after
  • Pre-post-exercise: This group exercised moderately before skill practice and intensely after
  • No exercise: This was a control group that rested before and after skill practice

The researchers noted their performance in the SVAT task and then invited them back after 7 days to re-test them and assess how well they remembered the skill they learned.

10% improvement in retaining a new motor skill

The study showed about 10% improvement in participant’s ability to remember a learned motor skill when exercise is included either before or after an exercise compared to no exercise. They also saw that the effect was even stronger when the participants rode the bike at both times. The study confirmed the hypothesis that exercise has a positive effect on memory consolidation.

“Our results demonstrate that there is a clear effect across the board. If you exercise before learning a skill, you will improve and remember what you have learned better. The same applies if you exercise after learning. But our research shows that the greatest effect is achieved if you exercise both before and after,” said PhD Lasse Jespersen, the leading author of the study.

By Bury