Cognitive abilities

Learning complex movements improves cognitive abilities?

For some time, scientists have drawn links between motor skills and cognitive abilities. These links have typically been based on correlations.

Recently, however, a causal link was reported between movement and cognitive abilities. In a randomized-controlled design, learning complex movements was found to improve working memory capacity and spatial abilities.

The Experiment

David Moraeu and colleagues randomly divided young adults into three training groups:

  1. Designed sport. This group engaged in wrestling training, which was designed to be both physically and cognitively demanding.  Participants were constantly forced to solve problems (motor, cognitive and perceptual) during training to learn new movements.
  2. Aerobic fitness. This group engaged in complex but familiar movements – running. Hence, no problem solving was required to learn new movements.
  3. Working memory training. This group engaged in working memory tasks on a computer. This is the typical working memory training protocol.

Each group participated in 24 training sessions over 8 weeks. Pre and post tests of working memory, spatial abilities, and physical fitness were administered.

The results

Working Memory & Spatial Abilities

  • The designed sport group displayed greater improvements in spatial abilities compared the working memory training group and the aerobic fitness group.
  • The designed sport group matched the working memory training group for improvements in working memory capacity. Both groups showed larger improvements compared to the aerobic fitness group.

Physical Fitness

  • Both the designed sport group and the aerobic fitness group displayed decreased heart rate and blood pressure following the intervention. Participants in the working memory training group experienced no change to physical fitness.
Moreau et al
Extracted from Moreau et al. (2015). DS = Designed Sport Group, WM = Working Memory Training Group, AE = Aerobic Fitness Group


Concluding message

This study highlights the important role that organised sport can play in society. Moreover, this is evidence of why sport and physical education should be given greater priority in the school curricular.


Moreau, D., Morrison, A. B., & Conway, A. R. (2015). An ecological approach to cognitive enhancement: Complex motor training. Acta psychologica, 157, 44-55.

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