Physically Fit Boys Score Higher on Cognitive Tests

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The link between physical fitness and mental performance has previously been demonstrated in multiple studies, but until now, no study has determined if a certain type of exercise was more beneficial than another. A new study from Sweden has found that aerobic fitness and better cardiovascular health among teenage boys correlates to higher scores on a range of intelligence tests, while increased muscle strength through body building did not.

Nancy Pedersen, of the University of Southern California, worked with colleagues at the University of Gothenburg to review data on all 1.2 million Swedish men born between 1950 and 1976 who enlisted for mandatory military service at the age of 18.

The researchers analyzed multiple measures of cognitive functioning, including verbal ability, logical performance, geometric perception, and mechanical skills. Boys who improved their cardiovascular health between ages 15 to 18 had significantly greater intelligence scores than those who became less healthy over the same time period. The strongest links were found with logical thinking and verbal comprehension.

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Over a longer term, boys who were most fit at 18 were most likely to go to college than their less fit counterparts.

Researchers did not find the same correlation with increased muscle 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, who was part of the group of researchers.

“During early adolescence and adulthood, the central nervous system displays considerable plasticity”, said Pedersen. “The results provide scientific support for educational policies to maintain or increase physical education in school curricula. Physical education should be an important instrument for public health initiatives to optimize cognitive performance, as well as disease prevention at the society level.”

Although this study did not look at teen girls, the researchers say that there is no reason to assume that the results could not be extrapolated to females. Women have about the same cardiovascular risk factors and therefore would benefit from cardiovascular exercise in the same way.

The study is published in the current edition of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) Early Edition.

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