Cardio Health Correlates to Smarts


A strong link between cardiovascular fitness in adolescence and cognitive ability in adulthood has been demonstrated in by American and Swedish researchers.  The study is discussed in Science Daily and it focuses on 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18.  On several assessments of cognitive function test scores increased along with aerobic fitness levels.  (That’s pretty cool.)  On the other hand, intelligence scores didn’t not track with muscle strength.  (That’s sort of a bummer.)  We’re told that the rapidly changing adolescent brain seems particularly sensitive to fitness levels, and that being fit during these years is quite important to brain power in adulthood.  Researchers admit that this fitness/intelligence effect is poorly understood.

“In every measure of cognitive functioning they analyzed — from verbal ability to logical performance to geometric perception to mechanical skills — average test scores increased according to aerobic fitness.”

Though I haven’t read the entire study, we should take note of several strong points.  First, the sample size of 1.2 million is fairly large.  Second, subjects were studied for several years.  Finally, the study even looked at pairs of twins.  Fit twins were smarter than their unfit siblings.  This suggests that fitness is indeed the cause of greater intelligence rather than a genetic influence.  The study’s main weak point is that it was conducted on Swedish men only.

I’ve got a several opinions.  First, this study should be mandatory reading for every public official, every principal, every teacher and every grade-schooler in the country.  For years physical education has been cut from schools in favor of more classroom time spent sitting and “learning.”  If this study is sound then clearly we need to add a fourth R to the equation: Readin’, Ritin’, ‘Rithmatic & Runnin’ Around.

Can we see a little further here?  Can we see a way not only to very nearly fix our creaking health care system–but also to regain America’s status as the most inventive, creative nation on earth?  As an incentive for more kids to be more physically active, I’d like to see an optional physical fitness equivalent of the SATs.  Colleges could offer tuition breaks for students with good scores.

Finally, why is cardiovascular fitness is tied so strongly to intelligence but not strength?  More specifically I’d like to know where the line is drawn–because in fact there is no line as I see it but rather a gradient.  From the shot put to the marathon, our heart, lungs, and muscles must work to accomplish the task; and it’s all driven by our nervous system.  It’s not like we turn off our lungs in order to throw a fastball, or shut down our muscles to run or bike for several hours.

To parse it a bit more, are ultra-marathoners smarter than 10k runners?  Are Ironman triathletes smarter than track cyclists?  Are 100 meter sprinters the least intelligent of the cardiovascularly fit among us?  What about rowers, basketball players, boxers, wrestlers, hockey players, tennis players, soccer players, rugby players, volleyball players and rock climbers?  Those sports require  you to be aerobically fit and strong.  This is a fascinating study and I hope someone expands on it.