Table 4

Reviews of physical activity and cognitive functioning in young people

Author, date and years coveredType of review; number of studies (K)Sample for current analysesExposure variablesTypes of research designMain findingsComments
Best30 Dates covered not statedSystematic review K=37–11 yearsPA (aerobic): running; walkingExperimentalExercise (specifically aerobic) had significant positive relationship with creativity- specifically flexible and divergent thinking but not with perceptual-motor skills or visual-motor coordination.
Centres for Disease Control and Prevention29 Dates covered not statedSystematic review K=50Children; exact ages not statedSchool PE; Recess (break); classroom physical activity breaks; extra-curricular physical activityAllSchool-based PE (k=14): weak or no association between increased PE time and academic achievement.
Recess studies (k=8): weak or no association between recess activity and cognitive outcomes.
Classroom physical activity studies (k=9): Consistent association between classroom activity breaks and cognitive outcomes.
Extra-curricular physical activity studies (k=19): Consistent association between extra-curricular physical activity and cognitive outcomes.
Some studies analysed included ‘attitude’ and ‘mood’ outcomes, not cognitive functioning.
Keeley and Fox28 Up to Feb 2009Systematic review N=184–18 yearsPA (break-time play; active travel; sport and physical education; informal play and sports; and dance clubs outside school)RCTs; quasi experimental; longitudinal; cross sectionalA weak positive relationship was found between increased school physical activity and cognitive functioning.
Cross-sectional studies indicated that more physical activity was associated with better performance in some subjects (eg, mathematics) but not in others (eg, English).
Intervention Studies indicated that introduction of more curricular time to PE did not have a detrimental effects on children's academic performance.
A weak but positive association was found between physical fitness and cognitive functioning in young people with the strongest correlations being with cardiovascular fitness.
Tomporowski et al27 Dates covered not statedSystematic review K=158–16 yearsPA (chronic exercise): Strength training; aerobic; runningCross-sectional, prospective and experimentalProspective and experimental designs:
 2 of 4 studies showed improvements in intelligence
 3 of 6 for cognition
 1 of 6 for academic achievement.
Cross-sectional designs:
 3 of 4 studies showed association with academic achievement.
Executive functioning tasks seem most positively affected.
Trudeau and Shephard26 1966–2007Systematic review K=175–16 yearsPA: PE activities; school sportQuasi experimental; longitudinal; cross-sectionalPA and academic achievement:
 Allocating up to an additional hour per day of curricular time to PA programmes did not affect academic performance of primary school students.
 Children, in the experimental group, whose academic tuition was reduced achieved equally as the control group.
PA and classroom behaviour:
 PA significantly improved concentration and classroom behaviour.
Fitness and academic achievement:
 A positive but weak relationship
The context of PA was not clearly defined.
Limited studies were used to assess the effect of fitness on academic achievement.
Sibley and Etnier25 Up to 2001Meta-analysis K=164–18 yearsPA: aerobic; resistance training; perceptual motor; PE programsTrue experiment; quasi experiment; cross- sectionalPA significantly associated with better cognitive functioning (ES=0.32).
No effect for memory tests and only a small effect for verbal tests.
Results were similar for healthy subjects, subjects with mental impairments and subjects with physical disabilities.
The influence of PA on cognitive functioning was not moderated by the type of research design, participant health and PA type.
Shephard24 Dates covered not statedNarrative review K=3 long-itudinal studies highlighted<20 yearsPA: PE activitiesCross-sectional; longitudinalAcademic performance is maintained or even enhanced by an increased level of PA.Narrative review only.
  • ES, effect size; PA, physical activit; PE, physical education.