Cardio for Better Motor Memory


The effects of exercise on health are well established. Given this understanding, there has been subsequent effort to draw specific attention on effects of exercise on cognitive functions; with this article yielding focus to the influence of intense cardiovascular exercise on motor learning skills.

Motor memory occurs as a result of motor learning and retention. Motor learning uses muscular activity, so a new motor skill can be anything from learning how to play tennis, how to hold a pen or how to ride a bike. Recent studies showed that exercise, particularly intense cardiovascular activity that is performed after learning a new motor skill, can greatly improve its retention in our brains.

One example is a study by Skriver and his colleagues who investigated 32 males; randomly allocated to either an ‘exercise’ or a ‘control’ group. Both groups were introduced to a new motor skill (called the ‘motor task’), which included accurately tracing a line as seen on a computer screen, using a handle (see figure 1). After which the ‘rest’ group was asked to remain inactive for 1 hour, while the ‘exercise’ group performed an intense cycling exercise. After 1 hour, both groups were asked to perform the same motor task again. The motor task was also assessed 24 hours and 7 days following the original task performance.

Figure 1: Schematic illustration of the motor task performed by Skriver et al. (2014)
(a) participants were seated in front of a computer screen, where a special application was showing an animated curved line. (b) Using a special handle, the participants were asked to track the moving line on the screen by moving the handle.

Initially both groups showed similar results after 1 hour. However, the ‘exercise’ group showed significantly better motor skill retention 24 hours and 7 days after the initial motor skill acquisition. It was found that merely a single burst of intense activity following the acquisition of a new motor skill was effective in bettering long-term motor memory and performance.

A similar methodology employed by Lundbye-Jensen et al. (2017) in a recent study assessed cardiovascular effects on the motor memory of preadolescent children. They found similar results; intense cardiovascular exercise performed immediately after motor skill acquisition facilitated long-term motor memory. If more physical activity was therefore implemented in the normal curriculum, it could dramatically improve academic performance among school children.

Despite some level of analysis, the link between long-term motor memory and cardiovascular exercise remains poorly understood. It is believed that it is facilitated by promoting memory consolidation, which occurs during sleep. Further studies are needed to understand the molecular mechanisms that link motor memory and physical activity, as despite extensive data, the link between the two is largely correlative. A recent meta-analysis study found that the timing of the exercise, its intensity and the complexity of the motor task are factors in modulating motor memory (Wanner et al., 2020). It is interesting to note that another study found that the exercise intensity does not affect the ability to retain motor skill (Wanner et al., 2020).

So, should we perform some physical activity after acquiring a new motor skill? Recent studies suggest that it is beneficial, however the processes underpinning this occurrence remain uncertain.  


Lundbye-Jensen J, Skriver K, Nielsen JB and Roig M (2017) Acute Exercise Improves Motor Memory Consolidation in Preadolescent Children. Front. Hum. Neurosci. 11:182. doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2017.00182

Roig M, Skriver K, Lundbye-Jensen J, Kiens B, Nielsen JB (2012) A Single Bout of Exercise Improves Motor Memory. PLOS ONE 7(9): e44594.

Skriver K, Roig M, Lundbye-Jensen J, Pingel J, Helge JW, Kiens B, Nielsen JB (2014) Acute exercise improves motor memory: Exploring potential biomarkers. Neurobiol. Learn. Mem. 116: 46-58.

Wanner P, Cheng FH, Steib S. Effects of acute cardiovascular exercise on motor memory encoding and consolidation: A systematic review with meta-analysis. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2020 Sep;116:365-381. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2020.06.018. Epub 2020 Jun 18. PMID: 32565171.

Wanner P, Müller T, Cristini J, Pfeifer K, Steib S. Exercise Intensity Does not Modulate the Effect of Acute Exercise on Learning a Complex Whole-Body Task. Neuroscience. 2020 Feb 1;426:115-128. doi: 10.1016/j.neuroscience.2019.11.027. Epub 2019 Dec 17. PMID: 31857198.

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