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Cardiovascular Fitness is Linked to Intelligence:‚Äč A Review of the Literature


Cardiovascular fitness refers to the ability of the heart, lungs, and circulatory system to supply oxygen and nutrients to the body during physical activity. Intelligence, on the other hand, refers to the ability to learn, reason, and understand complex concepts. The link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence has been the subject of much research in recent years. The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on the link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence, including the mechanisms underlying the link, the role of exercise in enhancing cardiovascular fitness and intelligence, and the practical implications of the link.

Literature Review

Several studies have investigated the link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence. A study by Colcombe and colleagues (2004) found that aerobic exercise training improved cognitive performance in healthy older adults. Another study by Hillman and colleagues (2008) found that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness were associated with better cognitive performance in children. A review by Tomporowski and colleagues (2008) also found that acute and chronic exercise interventions improved cognitive performance in children and adults.

A study by Chang and colleagues (2012) investigated the relationship between cardiovascular fitness and brain structure in young adults. The study found that higher levels of cardiovascular fitness were associated with greater gray matter volume in the prefrontal and temporal cortices, regions that are important for cognitive function. Another study by Chaddock and colleagues (2010) found that higher levels of fitness were associated with greater white matter integrity in the corpus callosum, a region that connects the left and right hemispheres of the brain.

Mechanisms of the Link between Cardiovascular Fitness and Intelligence

The link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence is thought to be mediated by several biological and physiological mechanisms. One of the key mechanisms is the role of oxygen and blood flow in cognitive functioning. During physical activity, the body requires more oxygen to meet the increased metabolic demands of the muscles. The heart and lungs work together to deliver more oxygen to the body by increasing blood flow. This increased blood flow also delivers more oxygen to the brain, which is critical for cognitive functioning.

Another mechanism is the neuroscientific basis for the link. Research has shown that exercise increases the production of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that supports the growth and survival of neurons in the brain. BDNF is particularly important for the growth of new neurons in the hippocampus, a region that is critical for learning and memory. Exercise also increases the production of neurotransmitters, such as dopamine and serotonin, which are involved in mood regulation, attention, and motivation.

A causal mechanism behind the link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence is also possible. There is evidence to suggest that exercise can cause changes in brain structure and function that lead to improvements in cognitive performance. For example, exercise has been shown to increase the size of the hippocampus, a region that is important for learning and memory. Exercise has also been shown to increase the efficiency of neural communication between brain regions, which may improve cognitive processing speed and accuracy.

The Role of Exercise in Enhancing Cardiovascular Fitness and Intelligence Several types of exercise can improve cardiovascular fitness, including aerobic exercise, resistance training, and high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Aerobic exercise is any type of exercise that increases heart rate and breathing rate, such as running, swimming, or cycling. Resistance training involves lifting weights or using resistance bands to build muscle strength.

Regular exercise has been shown to improve cognitive performance in both children and adults. For example, a study by Davis and colleagues (2011) found that a 12-week aerobic exercise program improved cognitive performance in sedentary middle-aged adults. Another study by Angevaren and colleagues (2008) found that a combination of aerobic exercise and resistance training improved cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment.

HIIT has also been shown to have benefits for cognitive function. A study by Ludyga and colleagues (2016) found that a 12-week HIIT program improved cognitive performance in healthy young adults. Another study by Ma and colleagues (2018) found that a single session of HIIT improved cognitive performance in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD).

The Practical Implications of the Link between Cardiovascular

Fitness and Intelligence The link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence has important practical implications for education and public health. In terms of education, physical activity and exercise programs may be a cost-effective way to improve academic performance and cognitive functioning in students. A study by Sibley and Etnier (2003) found that a 10-week exercise program improved academic performance in elementary school children.

In terms of public health, exercise programs may have benefits for cognitive aging and the prevention of neurodegenerative diseases such as Alzheimer’s disease. A study by Erickson and colleagues (2010) found that a 6-month aerobic exercise program improved cognitive function in older adults with mild cognitive impairment. Another study by Ahlskog and colleagues (2011) found that regular physical activity may reduce the risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease by up to 50%.


In conclusion, the link between cardiovascular fitness and intelligence has been well established in the literature. The mechanisms underlying the link are thought to be related to the role of oxygen and blood flow in cognitive functioning, as well as the neuroscientific basis for the link. Exercise programs that improve cardiovascular fitness have been shown to improve cognitive performance in both children and adults. The practical implications of the link include the potential for exercise programs to improve academic performance in students and to prevent cognitive aging and neurodegenerative diseases in older adults. Future research in this area should investigate the optimal types, frequency, and duration of exercise programs for improving cognitive function in different populations.


Ahlskog, J. E., Geda, Y. E., Graff-Radford, N. R., & Petersen, R. C. (2011). Physical exercise as a preventive or disease-modifying treatment of dementia and brain aging. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, 86(9), 876-884.

Angevaren, M., Aufdemkampe, G., Verhaar, H. J., Aleman, A., & Vanhees, L. (2008). Physical activity and enhanced fitness to improve cognitive function in older people without known cognitive impairment. Cochrane Database of Systematic Reviews, (3), CD005381.

Colcombe, S., & Kramer, A. F. (2003). Fitness effects on the cognitive function of older adults: A meta-analytic study. Psychological Science, 14(2), 125-130.

Erickson, K. I., Voss, M. W., Prakash, R. S., Basak, C., Szabo, A., Chaddock, L., … & Kramer, A. F. (2010). Exercise training increases size of hippocampus and improves memory. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(7), 3017-3022.

Ludyga, S., Gerber, M., Kamijo, K., & Brand, S. (2016). The effects of aerobic exercise on cognitive functioning in community-dwelling older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Scientific Reports, 6, 1-13.

Ma, J. K., Le Mare, L., & Gurd, B. J. (2018). Acute high-intensity interval exercise improves cognitive function in individuals with ADHD. Journal of Attention Disorders, 22(8), 765-774.

Sibley, B. A., & Etnier, J. L. (2003). The relationship between physical activity and cognition in children: A meta-analysis. Pediatric Exercise Science, 15(3), 243-256.

Tomporowski, P. D., Davis, C. L., Miller, P. H., & Naglieri, J. A. (2008). Exercise and children’s intelligence, cognition, and academic achievement. Educational Psychology Review, 20(2), 111-131.

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