People like Sachin Tendulakar, Sania Mirza, Pablo Picasso & Jimmy Page have something in common…they are all skilled in what they are famous for! Learning of these (motor) skills requires improvement in performance by acquiring novel combinations of arm, hand and body movement with a novel object. Learning and, therefore, retaining a learned skill is a hallmark of human behaviour. Skilled motor learning ranges from fascinating performances in the sports fields to a very mundane task like tying one’s shoes.

How a learned skill can be retained better, is a question that has haunted many researchers who are working in the related areas. Attracted by this very question, we at CoLA Lab in IIT Gandhinagar wanted to see if a relatively simple exercise that involves slow breathing in a particular manner can improve retention of a newly learned skill. The motivation for this study comes from the fact that breathing exercises have been shown to enhance a number of cognitive processes such as improved performance on verbal, spatial & executive tasks. We, therefore, wanted to investigate whether such exercise can have any effect on retention of a learned skill. 

To test this idea, we recruited 40 healthy individuals who performed and learned a new motor skill task in our lab. The participants were then divided into two groups- Group 1 performed a form of breathing exercise known as alternate nostril breathing exercise (anulom-vilom pranayam) immediately after learning the task for a duration of 30 minutes and the Group 2 rested during that period. Both the groups were tested for retention of that learned task after 30 minutes (retention test 1) and 1 day (retention test 2). We found that group-1 that performed the breathing exercise after learning the task retained better (in both retention test 1 & 2) when compared to group-2. This finding suggested that breathing exercise is somehow improving retention of the learned skill and its effects are reflected immediately after 30 minutes as well as 1 day. Based on this finding we tested another group (Group 3) of participants who first learned the task, rested for 30 minutes, tested during retention test-1 and then performed the same breathing exercise for 30 minutes. Following this they had retention test-2 after 1 day (just like the earlier groups). We had predicted that since this group performed the exercise after retention test-1 they would exhibit better retention at retention test-2 (1day post-exercise) but not at retention test-1 (pre-exercise). And our prediction was correct!

Taken together these findings tell us that a single session of breathing exercise performed after learning a new skilled movement can help it retain better. Given the simplicity of this exercise, this finding can have a huge implication for rehabilitation which is aimed at restoring the lost ability of skill acquisition & retention due to neurological injuries.

So if you want to enhance retention of a newly acquired skilled movement, then just sit and breathe!!!

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