Introduction: There is evidence for beneficial effects of acute and long-term exercise interventions on several forms of memory, including procedural motor learning. In the present study we examined how performing a single bout of continuous moderate intensity aerobic exercise would impact motor skill acquisition and retention in young healthy adults, compared to a period of rest. We hypothesized that exercise would improve motor skill acquisition and retention, compared to motor practice alone.
Materials and methods: Sixteen healthy adults completed sessions of aerobic exercise or seated rest that were immediately followed by practice of a novel motor task (practice). Exercise consisted of 30 minutes of continuous cycling at 60% peak O2 uptake. Twenty-four hours after practice, we assessed motor learning with a no-exercise retention test (retention). We also quantified changes in offline motor memory consolidation, which occurred between practice and retention (offline). Tracking error was separated into indices of temporal precision and spatial accuracy.
Results: There were no differences between conditions in the timing of movements during practice (p = 0.066), at retention (p = 0.761), or offline (p = 0.966). However, the exercise condition enabled participants to maintain spatial accuracy during practice (p = 0.477); whereas, following rest performance diminished (p = 0.050). There were no significant differences between conditions at retention (p = 0.532) or offline (p = 0.246).
Discussion: An acute bout of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise facilitated the maintenance of motor performance during skill acquisition, but did not influence motor learning. Given past work showing that pairing high intensity exercise with skilled motor practice benefits learning, it seems plausible that intensity is a key modulator of the effects of acute aerobic exercise on changes in complex motor behavior. Further work is necessary to establish a dose-response relationship between aerobic exercise and motor learning.