The illusive link between physical activity and IQ

Not all learning has to do with reading. Muscle memory is equally important for everything we do. Some people are born with a great muscle memory and should be able to use it for cognitive tasks. Others, like me, are lacking in muscle memory and need to supplement using other skills.

I am writing this article from my general knowledge, but I will not leave you without further reading materials. You are welcome to find interesting information here, here, here, here, here, here, here, here and here.

Mens sana in corpore sano

“Mens sana in corpore sano” is a Latin phrase, usually translated as “a healthy mind in a healthy body”. Classical education included sports as well as philosophy. Socrates claimed that sports contribute to good citizenship. Modern science often finds a correlation between IQ and sports. Being an ordinary nerd with very high grades and very little fitness training, I seriously questioned the ancient wisdom. It took me many years to understand what exactly I was missing, and my children are trained in sports as well as in science.

At first, it appears that there is no connection between athletic and intellectual capabilities. Most athletes do not appear to be very smart, and most scientists do not get Olympic medals. Extraordinary achievements are very rare and require extreme levels of focus and dedication. However, when we examine overall successful people: authors, businessmen, and politicians, they often combine great physical and intellectual development.

Are athletes stupid?

While many of us remember the stupid school bullies playing in various sports teams, these bullies rarely become professional athletes. Some professional athletes are really smart. Many smart people invest their energy in bodybuilding for various reasons. There is a well-known story of Christopher Langan, whos high IQ did not provide him with a dream job, and he ended up working as a bouncer for twenty years. Some Nobel prize winners actually are known as avid sportsmen, for example, Kurt Wuthrich.

Stamina and resilience

When we think about the benefits of sports for intellectual development, the first subject that often surfaces is the stamina. To be good in whatever intellectual activity we choose to do, we often rely on pure determination and perseverance. It is pretty normal to try many many different things one after another failing each time we try, until finally getting lucky. This is the story we often hear from businessmen, inventors, scientists, authors, and many others. The more a person can fail without losing his determination, the higher are the chances he will succeed in some difficult task. The ability to try many things and fail fast each time requires a lot of stamina. It is a common belief that sports are great for building such stamina. We know that sports build up personal resilience. One could argue that meditation also achieves similar results without sweat and cardiovascular activity. From what I understand, the combination of sports with meditation is more potent than each practice by itself.


Scientists understand that the benefit of sports goes much further than building a great stamina. The brain area called cerebellum is responsible for many different things. Especially for the things we do automatically. Motoric activities build up the cerebellum. Professional athletes often have a well-developed cerebellum. Juggling, while not exactly a sport, is probably the best activity for training the cerebellum. Jugglers have an exceptional memory, spatial awareness, and multitasking capabilities. Musicians also often have an exceptional memory, possibly because they need to perform complex motoric tasks with virtuous accuracy. We often hear that sportsmen control their muscles better than ordinary people, getting more accurate and effective movements. This awareness of the body also contributes to laboratory work, public appearances and ergonomics.

Using dancing for cognitive tasks

There are some reports of people using some sort of dance moves to solve complex cognitive tasks. Unfortunately, I never had this sort of experience, even though I think I understand why it works. Our subconsciousness often signals various things by gut feeling or various muscle tensions. The muscle memory is very useful for encoding certain sequences of activities that need to be done one after another. While we usually advise developing the visual memory for most cognitive tasks, muscle memory can often be very effective. One of the best ways to remember everything is by placing people performing actions within a mind palace with a certain itinerary. We can enhance the memorization by activating the muscle memory – either the memory of the action or the experiences of the itinerary. We can even be the ones performing some actions as we traverse an itinerary.

Into the body

One of the things all young scientists learn is: correlation does not imply causation. We may consider how various sports contribute to the IQ, but we may also consider how IQ can be applied to sports. Most sports have a very strong mental element.

The sports that use coordination rely on visualization as a part of training, since we can visualize many times doing the activity without straining our muscles or using advanced and costly training facilities. The visualization strengthens the neural paths in the brain almost as if we performed the activity.

The sports that require endurance also rely on visualization and vivid imagination to fight the pain, boredom, and fatigue. Some runners imagine that every step takes them closer to the target and enjoy the process instead of focusing on the pain as the people who did not train.

Even the sports that rely on speed use high IQ. The athlete can choose the fastest path, make no unnecessary moves, and use visualization to pump the body with adrenaline.

In the blood

One of the reasons physical activity is correlated with higher IQ scores has to do with the levels of oxygen and hormones in the blood. The brain needs a lot of nutrition and oxygen to grow and function effectively. Moreover, any immune system issues can affect the health of the brain blood barrier and the ability of the brain to handle nutrients. Sports pump the body with blood and oxygen. The increased metabolism that comes with big muscles also increases the flow of the nutrients to the brain. The better immune system associated with healthy body definitely helps, especially fighting mental degradation associated with aging up.


A good physical condition and some level of athletic success definitely contribute to self-confidence. Moreover, people in good physical shape are more likely to attract and influence others. Some of the effects lie in improved body language. Social success and confidence make people more positive and increase personal charisma. Confidence, believe in one’s cause and social support increase the cognitive performance and improve the results in all relevant tests.

Practical advice

It is never too late to do some activities. For example, swimming is great at any age and almost everybody can swim. Dancing is also something we can do almost at any age. And we definitely can meditate and do some flexibility exercises. We might be busy and tired and disillusioned, yet some sports can do wonders for our well-being.

When it comes to our children we have a much wider choice of activities. Martial arts are great for many aspects of the brain’s development and are definitely recommended. Group sports develop spatial thinking and social dynamics, and children love them anyway. While playing musical instruments is not exactly sports, the impressive motoric skills and stamina required for piano, guitar or drums are something any child should acquire.

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