Exercising Intelligence: How research shows a link between physical activity and smarts.


We’ve always known that working out was good for your body, but now the research is suggesting that being physically fit is also good for the thing inside your noggin. Jay Bonaretti takes you through the research on the links between working your body and working your mind.

Regular exercise predicts a high IQ score
A large study conducted at the Sahlgrenska Academy and Sahlgrenska University Hospital in Gothenburg, Sweden, reveals that young adults who regularly exercise have higher IQ scores and are more likely to go on to university.
The study was published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS), and involved more than 1.2 million Swedish men. The men were performing military service and were born between the years 1950 and 1976. Both their physical and IQ test scores were reviewed by the research team.
The results of the analysis reveal a clear link between physical fitness and IQ test scores. In particular, verbal comprehension and logical thinking show the greatest association with fitness. However, strength was not associated with an increase in IQ.
“Being fit means that you also have good heart and lung capacity and that your brain gets plenty of oxygen,” says Michael Nilsson, professor at the Sahlgrenska Academy and chief physician at the Sahlgrenska University Hospital. “This may be one of the reasons why we can see a clear link with fitness, but not with muscular strength. We are also seeing that there are growth factors that are important.”
The researchers also looked at data for twins and determined that primarily environmental factors are responsible for the association between IQ and fitness, and not genetic makeup. “We have also shown that those youngsters who improve their physical fitness between the ages of 15 and 18 increase their cognitive performance,” says Maria Åberg, researcher at the Sahlgrenska Academy and physician at the Åby Health Centre. “This being the case, physical education is a subject that has an important place in schools, and is an absolute must if we want to do well in maths and other theoretical subjects.”
Another interesting result of the analysis was the discovery that those who were fit when they were 18 years old were more likely to attend university and most found better jobs afterwards.
The study was performed at the Center for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation in Gothenburg in conjunction with the Swedish Twins Registry at the Karolinska Institutet.
Reference: Aberg M. A., Pedersen N. L., Toren K., Svartengren M., Backstrand B., Johnsson T., Cooper-Kuhn C. M., Aberg N. D., Nilsson M., Kuhn H. G. (2009). Cardiovascular fitness is associated with cognition in young adulthood. Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 106, 20906–20911

Emotional intelligence and peak physical performance
One’s emotional state will obviously have some bearing on their performance when undertaking a physically strenuous activity. Some new research has demonstrated the strong link between emotional intelligence and peak performance.
A study published in the Journal of Sports Science and Medicine examined the relationships between self-reported measures of emotional intelligence and memories of emotions associated with athletic performance. The researchers hypothesised that there would be significant differences in emotions before successful and unsuccessful athletic performance, and that pleasant emotions would affect the outcome of both successful and unsuccessful events.
A total of 284 participants were recruited to the study from Hungarian, Italian and British universities. All participated in regular physical activity, ranging from recreational levels to elite athletes. In addition to practising their regular sports activities, all participants filled out the Emotional Intelligence Scale, a self-report on emotional intelligence, as well as the Brunel Mood Scale, a 24-item tool that assesses anger, confusion, depression, fatigue, tension and vigour.
Results of the study showed, not surprisingly, that high scores on vigour, calmness and happiness and low scores on anger, confusion, depression, fatigue and tension were significantly associated with optimal athletic performance. Emotional intelligence was also shown to correlate significantly with memories of emotions in both successful and unsuccessful performance. Interestingly, it appears that emotional intelligence correlates with pleasant emotions even when an athlete’s performance is below personal standards.
It’s important to note that this emotional intelligence can be learned, and new tools emerging from emotional intelligence research will likely help athletes assess, monitor and modify their responses to athletic outcomes to help them achieve optimal results.
Reference: Andrew M. Lane 1, Tracey J. Devonport 1, Istvan Soos 2, Istvan Karsai 3, Eva Leibinger 4 and Pal Hamar 4 (2010) Emotional intelligence and emotions associated with optimal and dysfunctional athletic performance J Sports Science and Medicine 9, 388-392

Improve your memory with exercise
Researcher Ruth Barrientos and colleagues have found that small amounts of exercise can protect the elderly from long-term memory loss that can occur following injury, infections or illnesses.
The study examined aging rats that voluntarily exercised half a kilometre each week and were protected against infection-induced memory loss. Long-term memory loss can occur after bacterial infections, which leaves excessive inflammation in the brain.
While this is the first significant study of its kind, researchers have known for some time that exercise can protect and slow the physiological deterioration that comes with age. It is also known that dementia is often caused by bacterial infections which cause inflammation in the brain. By engaging in regular, voluntary exercise, the aging population would be able to protect against the conditions that lead to dementia.
As humans age, cells in the brain called microglia become more active. They are reactive to bacteria in the brain and cause inflammations when primed. In older rats that were slightly more active, it appeared that these microglia were less reactive to bacterial infections in the brain. Thus they were less likely to cause any inflammation in the brain, and when they did, were not as likely to cause excessive reactions.
As the baby boomer population ages, this information may help health professionals understand preventative methods to combat aging. Barrientos and her team are looking forward to their next study in this field, where they will seek to find whether the stress hormone has any effect on microglia, and if physical activity in rats can slow or sensitise the cells.
Reference: Barrientos, R., Maier, S., Watkins, L., Campeau, S., Day, H., Patterson, S. Little (2011) ‘Exercise, Big Effects: Reversing Aging and Infection-Induced Memory Deficits, and Underlying Processes.’ Journal of Neuroscience. University of Colorado at Boulder.

Jay, a former BodyBlitz Grand Champion, operates Amino Z, a leading supplement store at

Iron Man - In the Gym