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Link Between Physical Fitness & IQ

A new Swedish study finds that young adults who are fit have a higher intelligence quotient (IQ) and are more likely to go on to college. IQ is a measurement of a person’s hypothetical intelligence and has been positively correlated with greater earnings and success in life.

As Sweden has a mandatory military commitment, investigators evaluated information on 1.2 million Swedish men who were born between 1950 and 1976. The research group analyzed the results of both physical and IQ tests when the men enrolled.

The study shows a clear link between good physical fitness and better results for the IQ test. The strongest links are for logical thinking and verbal comprehension. However, only cardiovascular fitness played a role in the results for the IQ test — not strength.

“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.”

By analyzing data for twins the researchers have been able to determine that it is primarily environmental factors and not genes that explain the link between fitness and a higher IQ. Prior to this study, the question of which component played a greater factor in IQ was not decided. While this study adds evidence to the environmental side, it is not definitive.

“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 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.”

The researchers have also compared the results from fitness tests during national service with the socioeconomic status of the men later in life. Those who were fit at 18 were more likely to go into higher education, and many secured more qualified jobs. According to the variables the researchers measured, these men appeared to achieve greater success than men who were not fit at 18 years of age.

The link between physical fitness and mental performance has previously been demonstrated in studies carried out on animals, children and old people.

However, studies on young adults have been contradictory to date. Around the age of 20 human brains may still change rapidly as a result of both cognitive and emotional development.

Limitations of the study include only being conducted on individuals from one nationality, and it only being conducted on men. It’s not clear what impact it would have on the data if the researchers had looked at both men and women, or looked at people from a different country than Sweden.

The study was carried out at the Center for Brain Repair and Rehabilitation in Gothenburg in conjunction with the Swedish Twins Registry at the Karolinska Institutet.

Source: Karolinska Institutet

Link Between Physical Fitness & IQ

This article has been updated from the original version, which was originally published here on December 3, 2009.

Rick Nauert PhD

Rick Nauert, PhDDr. Rick Nauert has over 25 years experience in clinical, administrative and academic healthcare. He is currently an associate professor for Rocky Mountain University of Health Professionals doctoral program in health promotion and wellness. Dr. Nauert began his career as a clinical physical therapist and served as a regional manager for a publicly traded multidisciplinary rehabilitation agency for 12 years. He has masters degrees in health-fitness management and healthcare administration and a doctoral degree from The University of Texas at Austin focused on health care informatics, health administration, health education and health policy. His research efforts included the area of telehealth with a specialty in disease management.

APA Reference
Nauert PhD, R. (2019). Link Between Physical Fitness & IQ. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 24, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 3 May 2019 (Originally: 3 Dec 2017)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 3 May 2019
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