Nov. 30, 2009 -- A healthy body may be the first step to achieving a healthy mind and appetite for learning.
A large new study links cardiovascular fitness in early adulthood to increased intelligence, better performance on cognitive tests, and higher educational achievement later in life.
Researchers say the results suggest that promoting physical and cardiovascular fitness as a public health strategy could maximize educational achievement as well as prevent disease at the societal level.
"We believe the present results provide scientific support for educational policies to maintain or increase physical education in school curricula as a means to stem the growing trend toward a sedentary lifestyle, which is accompanied by an increased risk for diseases and perhaps intellectual and academic underachievement," write researchers Maria Aberg and colleagues of the University of Gothenburg in Gothenburg, Sweden in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.
The study followed more than 1 million men born in 1950 through 1976 who were enlisted for military service in Sweden at age 18. The sample included 3,147 twin pairs, of which 1,432 were identical.
Physical fitness and intelligence were assessed at the time of conscription and linked to national databases on school achievement and socioeconomic status later in life.
The results showed that cardiovascular fitness, but not muscular strength, was associated with cognitive performance on many different measures.
For example, higher scores on measures of cardiovascular fitness were linked to higher scores on intelligence and academic achievement.
When researchers looked at twins, they found that environmental factors rather than genetics appeared to play the largest role in these associations. Non-shared environmental influences accounted for 80% or more of differences in academic achievement, whereas genetics accounted for less than 15% of these differences.
In addition, cardiovascular fitness changes between age 15 and 18 predicted cognitive performance at age 18, and cardiovascular fitness at age 18 predicted academic achievement and socioeconomic status later in life.
Researchers say many previous studies have linked physical fitness with cognitive performance in animals and humans but most have focused on young children or adults. Few studies have looked at the effect of physical and cardiovascular fitness on academic achievement in young adulthood, a critical period for cognitive development.