Improved Fitness Helps with Motor Learning

Exercise really is one of the best things you can do in your life.

It’s kind of like the Frank’s RedHot sauce of condiments. Remember their tagline?

Just like Frank’s RedHot, exercise does it all as well.

Or if you’re more of a movie buff than a chef maybe Windex is a better example.

Just like Windex, exercise can solve many of life’s problems.

Because we’re aware of many of the benefits of exercise including increased/improved:

  • strength
  • fitness
  • mobility
  • health
  • sleep
  • mental health
  • posture
  • immune function
  • longevity
  • bone & joint health
  • energy
  • weight management
  • academic performance

And this is really preaching to the choir because as a reader of this blog, and possibly subscriber of our newsletter, you already live an active life for the reasons listed above.

But did you consider one of your reasons for increased fitness to be so that you would have improved motor skills?

In other words, is there a physical task you were looking to improve and thought the way you would get better would be by increasing your fitness?

If you hadn’t thought that way don’t worry you’re not alone. Not many people had. And new research published this months is among the first evidence to show this.

The study looked at how running fitness improved motor learning. More specifically the researchers wanted to know what was the mechanism that allowed for better movement.

Here’s what they did.

The had mice run daily on a wheel for a week. And then they measured how the mice on the time to cross a balance beam and their performance on a rotarod measuring speed when they fell off. Below are the results comparing the the mice that ran versus the controls that didn’t.

e Time to cross a 1-m long, 4-mm diameter rod balance beam during each trial of training or each test the day after training. f Mean time to cross this balance beam in three tests the day after training. For cfn = 19 Ctrls and 20 Runners. g Timelines for immediate behavioral testing and retesting. 
c Speed at fall on an accelerative rotarod of each trial during training or each test the day after training. d Mean speed at fall on this rotarod in three tests on the day after training.

We can see that the mice that ran were able to cross the beam in less time and attain higher speeds when they fell off the rotarod.

So what do they believe accounted for this improvement in motor skill?

There is a switching in neurotransmitters that occurs in the neurons. Specifically there is a switching from acetylcholine (ACh) to gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA). With one week of running on the treadmill researchers noticed a switching of these neurotransmitters in the caudal pedunculopontine nucleus (cPPN). When researchers blocked this switching of neurotransmitters no improvement in motor learning was observed.

The effects from one week of running lasted for 2 weeks but were lost by the fourth week.

If you’re someone with two left feet on the dance floor or want to try a new sport this year improve your fitness first to enhance your motor learning.

See the citation below if you’d like to check out the study for yourself.

Reference

Li, H. Q., & Spitzer, N. C. (2020). Exercise enhances motor skill learning by neurotransmitter switching in the adult midbrain. Nature Communications11(1), 1-13.

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