Purpose The goal of this meta-analysis was to aggregate available empirical studies on the effects of physical exercise on executive functions in preadolescent children (6–12 years of age), adolescents (13–17 years of age) and young adults (18–35 years of age).
Method The electronic databases PubMed, EMBASE and SPORTDiscus were searched for relevant studies reporting on the effects of physical exercise on executive functions. Nineteen studies were selected.
Results There was a significant overall effect of acute physical exercise on executive functions (d=0.52, 95% CI 0.29 to 0.76, p<0.001). There were no significant differences between the three age groups (Q (2)=0.13, p=0.94). Furthermore, no significant overall effect of chronic physical exercise (d=0.14, 95%CI −0.04 to 0.32, p=0.19) on executive functions (Q (1)=5.08, p<0.05) was found. Meta-analytic effect sizes were calculated for the effects of acute physical exercise on the domain's inhibition/interference control (d=0.46, 95% CI 0.33 to 0.60, p<0.001) and working memory (d=0.05, 95% CI −0.51 to 0.61, p=0.86) as well as for the effects of chronic physical exercise on planning (d=0.16, 95% CI 0.18 to 0.89, p=0.18).
Conclusions Results suggest that acute physical exercise enhances executive functioning. The number of studies on chronic physical exercise is limited and it should be investigated whether chronic physical exercise shows effects on executive functions comparable to acute physical exercise. This is highly relevant in preadolescent children and adolescents, given the importance of well-developed executive functions for daily life functioning and the current increase in sedentary behaviour in these age groups.
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