EXERCISE
May 12, 2020

Learning New Tricks

Don't let self-quarantine lead to a lack of exercise. It could make it harder to learn new physical skills later on.

Sheltering in place can get people into a rut where they spend their lives moving from TV to computer to refrigerator. Not only will this put on the pounds, it's also not enough exercise. A recent look at mice adds to the known perils of what happens when we become less and less active. It's a reminder of the need to keep moving.

It's difficult getting your muscles to even do tasks that they're accustomed to after a period of inactivity. Just ask any musician who hasn't played for a while. This study hints that periods of inactivity make it even harder to learn new tasks, at least for mice.

When mice given the opportunity to exercise had their wheel removed for a week, they lost their enhanced ability to learn new motor skills.

This could mean those of us who've settled into a more sedentary lifestyle will not only start experiencing difficulties with everyday tasks such as walking or doing the laundry, they may also have a harder time learning a new sport or dance move, once sports and dancing return as possibilities.

One group of mice in the study was allowed access to a running wheel for one week and allowed to exercise at will, which they did vigorously. Another group of mice had no access to exercise wheels. A week later, both groups of mice were given tests of their ability to learn new motor skills, such as crossing a narrow balance beam or staying on a rotating steel rod without falling off. The mice that had exercised were much better at picking up these new skills.

A deeper look also revealed differences in the brains of the two groups of mice. The brain region known to regulate motor coordination, the caudal pedunculopontine nucleus, showed changes in at least one of the chemical messengers or neurotransmitters that its nerve cells were producing. While the unexercised mice were mainly producing acetylcholine, the exercised mice had begun producing much less acetylcholine and much more GABA, or gamma-aminobutyric acid, a different neurotransmitter that's known to block or inhibit certain brain signals and decrease activity in the nervous system.

To show that this change is actually involved in the learning process, researchers used molecular tools that prevent this switch of neurotransmitters. Doing so also blocked the ability of the mice to learn how to keep on the rod or cross the balance beam.

Perhaps more importantly, when mice given the opportunity to exercise had their wheel removed for a week, they lost their enhanced ability to learn new motor skills.

“The results underscore the importance of exercise, even at home during the current pandemic quarantine situation,” study co-author, Hui-quan Li, Assistant Project Scientist at the University of California San Diego, said in a statement.

If you're thinking of learning new activities, such as surfing or rock climbing once we've all stopped sheltering at home, Li suggests that running on a treadmill or practicing yoga at home right now might be a good idea. It wouldn't hurt the waistline, either.

For more details, see the article in the open access journal Nature Communications.

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