Background Physical exercise is seen as a promising intervention to prevent or delay cognitive decline in individuals aged 50 years and older, yet the evidence from reviews is not conclusive.
Objectives To determine if physical exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in this population.
Design Systematic review with multilevel meta-analysis.
Data sources Electronic databases Medline (PubMed), EMBASE (Scopus), PsychINFO and CENTRAL (Cochrane) from inception to November 2016.
Eligibility criteria Randomised controlled trials of physical exercise interventions in community-dwelling adults older than 50 years, with an outcome measure of cognitive function.
Results The search returned 12 820 records, of which 39 studies were included in the systematic review. Analysis of 333 dependent effect sizes from 36 studies showed that physical exercise improved cognitive function (0.29; 95% CI 0.17 to 0.41; p<0.01). Interventions of aerobic exercise, resistance training, multicomponent training and tai chi, all had significant point estimates. When exercise prescription was examined, a duration of 45–60 min per session and at least moderate intensity, were associated with benefits to cognition. The results of the meta-analysis were consistent and independent of the cognitive domain tested or the cognitive status of the participants.
Conclusions Physical exercise improved cognitive function in the over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants. To improve cognitive function, this meta-analysis provides clinicians with evidence to recommend that patients obtain both aerobic and resistance exercise of at least moderate intensity on as many days of the week as feasible, in line with current exercise guidelines.
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Acknowledgements The authors report no disclosures. NC is funded by an ARC Future Fellowship No 120100227. The authors thank Dr Marijke Welvaert for advising on the statistical methodology.
Contributors JMN contributed to the design of the study, the literature search, data screening and extraction, conducted all statistical analyses, and managed all aspects of manuscript preparation and submission. He is guarantor.
NC contributed to the design of the study, provided methodological input and theoretical expertise, and contributed to writing and editing of the manuscript.
KLP contributed to the design of the study, data screening and extraction, and contributed to writing and editing of the manuscript.
DJS contributed to the design of the study, data screening and extraction, and contributed to writing and editing of the manuscript.
BR contributed to the design of the study, data screening and extraction, provided methodological input and theoretical expertise, and contributed to writing and editing of the manuscript.
All authors meet the criteria for authorship and JM Northey accepts to provide access to the data on request.
Competing interests None declared.
Provenance and peer review Not commissioned; externally peer reviewed.
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