One 15-Minute Workout Can Facilitate Optimal Brain States

A single bout of aerobic exercise can improve brain efficiency and connectivity.

Posted Jul 17, 2018

Source: LANBO/Shutterstock

For the first time, a new study from McGill University reports that a single fifteen-minute bout of cardiovascular exercise can optimize brain connectivity and efficiency. More specifically, the researchers found that 15 minutes of aerobic exercise on a stationary bicycle immediately after practicing a complex visuomotor skill created an optimal brain state for long-term memory consolidation of the task. The findings of this study were recently published in the journal NeuroImage

In previous research, senior author Marc Roig found that a single bout of aerobic exercise performed within a narrow time window after being exposed to new information improved the ability to remember explicit knowledge using declarative memory. Roig et al. sum up these findings: "When performed in close temporal proximity to memory encoding, a single bout of exercise may facilitate the long-term retention of information.”

Other research on the link between aerobic exercise and memory consolidation conducted by Roig has demonstrated that cardiovascular exercise also helps to consolidate implicit motor skill memories if and when the 15-minute aerobic workout is performed soon after practicing a specific motor skill.

For the latest McGill-based research on the correlation between memory consolidation and a single 15-minute bout of aerobic exercise, first author Fabien Del Maso collaborated with Roig to examine what was going on in the brain during this process. 

To test differences in brain activity during motor task learning either with or without subsequent aerobic exercise, the researchers had study participants play a “pinch test” video game that involved gripping a dynamometer with varying degrees of intensity to accurately move a cursor around the computer screen while being monitored using electroencephalography (EEG) and electromyography (EMG).

 McGill University
Participants in the study were divided into those who rested after a first take on a new motor skill and those who rode an exercise bike for 15-minutes. When asked to repeat the same task 24-hours later, those who had exercised used far fewer brain resources.
Source: McGill University

Immediately after the initial pinch-task practice session, participants either rode a stationary bicycle for 15 minutes or sat still. Then, participants were asked to perform the hand-grip task again at 30, 60 and 90-minute intervals as the researchers assessed brain activity. The next phase of testing occurred 8 hours after the initial motor skill learning and again 24-hours later as the researchers monitored changes in brain activity, efficiency, and connectivity. 

Notably, study participants who had performed 15 minutes of aerobic exercise after learning the dynamometer hand-grip skill were able to perform the complex "pinch task” using fewer brain resources and with better interhemispheric efficiency 24 hours after initially learning the task. 

Source: Kzenon/Shutterstock

When the researchers analyzed the brain data to unearth differentiating factors between the “exercise” and “non-exercise” groups, they found that neural connections between and within brain hemispheres had become more efficient in those who worked out for 15 minutes after initial motor skill learning had occurred. 

"Because the neural activation in the brains of those who had exercised was much lower, the neural resources could then be put to other tasks. Exercise may help free up part of your brain to do other things,” Fabien Dal Maso said in a statement. 

Sleep Plays a Pivotal Role in Memory Consolidation

A particularly intriguing aspect of this study is that 8 hours after learning a new motor skill there was relatively little difference in skill retention between the exercise and non-exercise groups. However, after 24 hours had passed, and both groups had the chance to sleep, the exercise group showed robust improvement in the pinch task while using fewer brain resources. 

"What this suggests to us, and this is where we are going next with our research, is that sleep can interact with exercise to optimize the consolidation of motor memories," Marc Roig said in a statement. "It is very exciting to be working in this area right now because there is still so much to be learnt and the research opens doors to health interventions that can potentially make a big difference to people's lives."

The latest findings from McGill are a valuable evidence-based addition to previous hypotheses on a possible link between sleep, aerobic exercise, and mastering new skills. Over a decade ago, there was some initial empirical evidence that sleep played an important role in consolidating implicit procedural memory and some speculation that exercise may help to optimize this process. For example, in "The Sleep Remedy" chapter of The Athlete’s Way (2007), I wrote, 

“Exercise and sleep make a perfect circle. Exercising helps people sleep better, and sleeping helps athletes perform better. Practice, practice, practice should really be practice-sleep, practice-sleep, practice-sleep. Recent studies suggest that the brain uses a night’s sleep to consolidate the memories, actions, and skills learned during the day. Robert Stickgold has dedicated his life to researching sleep as it relates to memory and learning. He explains, “Suppose you are trying to learn a passage in a Chopin etude, and you just can’t get it. You walk away and the next day (after a good night’s sleep), the first try, you’ve got it perfectly. We see this with musicians and with gymnasts. There’s something about learning motor activity patterns, complex movements: they seem to get better by themselves.” If you want to get better at sports, you have to get plenty of sleep. Sleep consolidates memories so that your brain can be streamlined and run like a well-tuned engine.”

One thing that makes the latest 2018 study from McGill unique and potentially groundbreaking is that these findings could help fine-tune a practical prescriptive for how and when a specific dose of aerobic exercise creates an optimal brain state for memory consolidation.

The latest neuroscience-based research suggests that 15 minutes of aerobic exercise soon after practicing a new motor skill—followed by a good night’s sleep—may be ideal for promoting functional changes in the brain that facilitate optimal motor memory consolidation. This discovery has the potential to help patients who have suffered a stroke or anyone facing mobility issues after an injury speed up his or her recovery of everyday motor skills. 


Fabien Dal Maso, Bennet Desormeau, Marie-Hélène Boudrias, Marc Roig. "Acute Cardiovascular Exercise Promotes Functional Changes in Cortico-Motor Networks During the Early Stages of Motor Memory Consolidation." NeuroImage (Published: July 1, 2018) DOI: 10.1016/j.neuroimage.2018.03.029

Marc Roig, Kasper Skriver, Jesper Lundbye-Jensen, Bente Kiens, Jens Bo Nielsen. "A Single Bout of Exercise Improves Motor Memory." PlosOne (2012) DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0044594

Marc Roig, Richard Thomas, Cameron S. Mang, Nicholas J. Snow, Fatemeh Ostadan, Lara A. Boyd, and Jesper Lundbye-Jensen.“Time-Dependent Effects of Cardiovascular Exercise on Memory” Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews (2016) DOI: 10.1249/JES.0000000000000078