By Manny W Radomski

Can physical activity enhance intelligence?

Can physical activity enhance intelligence?


We all know that exercise improves physical fitness, but staying in shape can also boost our brainpower.


To maintain normal cognitive function, the brain requires a constant supply of oxygen and other chemicals, delivered via its abundant blood vessels. Physical activity—even just simple activities such as washing dishes or vacuuming—helps to circulate nutrient-rich blood efficiently throughout the body and keeps the blood vessels healthy.

Exercise also increases the creation of mitochondria—the cellular structures that generate and maintain our energy—both in our muscles and in our brain, which may explain the mental edge we often experience after a workout. Getting the heart rate up also enhances neurogenesis, the ability to grow new brain cells in adults.

An emerging body of multidisciplinary literature has documented the beneficial influence of aerobic exercise on selective aspects of brain function, cognition and performance.

Studies have also shown that mindfulness meditation promotes attention control and minimizes anxiety-related impairments of executive functions, thus increasing the effects of cognitive training.

Can exercise improve intelligence?

An enduring research objective in psychological and brain sciences is to enhance brain health and to deliver sustainable cognitive gains that benefit daily living. One central question of the research effort is whether interventions can enhance intelligence.

Scientists test and score fluid intelligence to predict real-world outcomes across life span, such as scholastic achievement, job performance, and career success.

Fluid intelligence is the capacity to think logically and solve problems in novel situations, independent of acquired knowledge. It involves the ability to identify patterns and relationships that underpin novel problems and to extrapolate these findings using logic.

Researchers in the present study examined the efficacy of a combination of interventions to improve fluid intelligence. These interventions include fitness training, computer-based cognitive training, and mindfulness meditation. Their findings are reported in the Journal of Intelligence.

The study

In a 4-month trial, 424 healthy adults aged 18-43 were assigned randomly to one of 4 groups: (1) fitness training only, (2) fitness training and cognitive training (computer-based), (3) fitness, cognitive training, and mindfulness meditation, or (4) controls.

Fitness only training did not produce any gains in fluid intelligence tests as compared to controls. The combination of fitness and cognitive training resulted in gains in visuospatial reasoning, but not in test of fluid intelligence.

In the multiple-modal intervention that combined fitness training, cognitive training and mindfulness meditation, responses are more varied. But those who scored higher in visuosptial reasoning also gained in fluid intelligence scores.

The researchers suggest that this multiple-modal intervention is a promising avenue to enhance fluid intelligence, which may improve reasoning and decision-making in daily life. These findings are in line with an earlier study, which showed that physical activity positively influenced fluid intelligence and academic achievement in an elementary school setting.


Daugherty AM et al (2018) Multi-modal fitness and cognitive training to enhance fluid intelligence, Intelligence (2018) 66: 32-43. doi: 10.1016/j.intell.2017.11.001


Reed J A et al (2010) Examining the impact the impact of integrating physical activity on fluid intelligence and academic performance in an elementary school setting. J Physical Activity and Health (2010) 343-351.

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