I am interested in empirical research relevant to answering the following questions:

  • What is the effect of physical exercise on IQ/intelligence?
  • Does any such effect vary by type of exercise? e.g. aerobics, weights
  • Are there any forms of physical exercise that can stimulate brian growth?
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ I think that the disappointing conclusion to all of these sort of "improvement" questions is that everything matters, but only a little bit. If anyone had really discovered a significant way to get more intelligent, stronger, more attractive, lose weight, etc, people would know about it. $\endgroup$
    – user9634
    Mar 23, 2015 at 20:15

2 Answers 2


My general sense from reading the intelligence literature is that I would not expect there to be much of a relationship between exercise and intelligence. For example, if you read Neisser et al (1996) you can get an overview of the intelligence literature. From the review, you can get a sense of just how difficult it is to systematically increase intelligence, especially over longer periods of time. This includes many cognitive interventions. It seems likely to me that cognitive interventions are targeting intelligence more directly and thus if anything should be more effective than more indirect interventions, such as those targeting physical activity. That said, aerobic, strength, and general physical health is presumably related to energy levels and as studies suggest below may also be related to a range of cognitive and motivational processes relevant to effective life functioning.

Exercise for sedentary adults

Colcombe and Kramer (2003) performed a meta analysis on sedentary older adults and found that performance on cognitive tasks improved by .48 standard deviation relative to to .16 standard deviation improvement for control groups. The average improvement in cardiovascular only programs was 0.41 standard deviations, and the average improvement for combined programs (i.e., including resistance training) was .59 standard deviations. These studies used a variety of psychomotor and cognitive tasks. However, it did not appear that the studies used intelligence tests.

I take from these studies that exercise can have a beneficial effect on psychomotor functioning. However, I'm not persuaded yet that it exercise has a major effect on intelligence.

Exercise for children

For a review of research on exercise on children's cognitive function and academic achievement, see Tomporowski et al (2008). The authors conclude that "similar to adults, exercise facilitates children’s executive function (i.e., processes required to select, organize, and properly initiate goal-directed actions)." They provide a narrative review of many existing studies on the topic.


  • 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. http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2748863/
  • Neisser, U., Boodoo, G., Bouchard Jr, T. J., Boykin, A. W., Brody, N., Ceci, S. J., ... & Urbina, S. (1996). Intelligence: Knowns and unknowns. American psychologist, 51(2), 77. PDF
  • 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.
  • $\begingroup$ I came across an article "How Exercise Could Lead to a Better Brain" in NY times that positively indicates that: nytimes.com/2012/04/22/magazine/… $\endgroup$
    – Shan
    Jan 18, 2013 at 9:12
  • $\begingroup$ I'm also pretty skeptical about how papers like ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3951958 state the findings, namely that they look at stuff like BDNF and conclude that must affect cognition. From the more direct measures, exercise seem to prevent (faster) loss of cognitive abilities due to other factors, like aging. Which is not exactly the same thing. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2017 at 4:06

You also ask

Does any such effect vary by type of exercise? e.g. aerobics, weights

Are there any forms of physical exercise that can stimulate brian growth?

There is one large study in male Swedish adolescents (army conscripts), which found that cardiovascular fitness but not muscle strength was associated with IQ.

  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @AliceD: I got carried away by own confusion. I pared it down now to what I really wanted to say that's not found in Jeromy's answer. $\endgroup$ Dec 2, 2017 at 22:42

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