by GREG HICKEY
The previous example illustrates a complementary relationship of virtues, where courage, intelligence and physical fitness combine to support and strengthen one another. In this essay, I examine further data for the connection between fitness and intelligence. A variety of research demonstrates increased physical activity and fitness improves learning ability and increases cognitive performance over time. While some evidence exists in support of the converse relation (that increased mental activity and intelligence is correlated with improved physical fitness), further study is required to substantiate that claim.
The Research: Connecting Fitness & Intelligence
A 2013 study by researchers at the University of Illinois tested 48 nine and ten year old children on their ability to learn new information. The researchers selected 24 students in the top 30% and 24 students in the bottom 30% of aerobic fitness for their age and gender as measured by a treadmill test. Each group contained an approximately equal number of boys and girls with no significant differences in socioeconomic status, ADHD symptoms or scores on an intelligence test. The scientists asked the students to use an iPad to learn the made-up names of ten fictional regions on a map and tested their memories the following day. Within each group of 24, some students only studied on the first day while others received mock tests during their study sessions. On the test day, students in each group were tested either by free recall or cued recall.
Though the researchers observed no differences in initial learning ability, the children in the high-fitness group outperformed those in the low-fitness group during testing, with the former averaging 54.2% correct responses to the latter’s 44.2% correct. The disparity was further exaggerated with the less successful, study-only strategy; high-fitness students outscored low-fitness students 43.0% to 25.8% when both were subject to this condition. Based on these results, the researchers concluded that improved fitness can boost learning and memory in children, and that the fitness-associated performance benefits are greatest in more challenging initial learning conditions.1,2
This complementary relationship between physical activity and cognitive performance holds for a range of ages. A 2001 study published in the Annals of Behavior Medicine demonstrated that senior citizens who walk regularly showed significant improvement in memory skills compared to their more sedentary counterparts. Walking also improved the subjects’ learning ability, concentration and abstract reasoning, and researchers observed that 57% of people who walked as little as 20 minutes a day reduced their risk of stroke.4 A University of California study observed a positive correlation between brain function and physical activity level (including routine walking and stair-climbing) in a sample of 6,000 women over an eight year period. 24% of the women who walked the least (one half-mile per week) showed significant declines in their cognitive test scores, versus only 17% of the most active women, who averaged 17 miles per week. For every extra mile the subjects walked per week, researchers observed an average of 13% lower chance of cognitive decline.5