The effects of cardiovascular exercise on human memory: a review with meta-analysis

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2013 Sep;37(8):1645-66. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2013.06.012. Epub 2013 Jun 24.


We reviewed the evidence for the use of cardiovascular exercise to improve memory and explored potential mechanisms. Data from 29 and 21 studies including acute and long-term cardiovascular interventions were retrieved. Meta-analyses revealed that acute exercise had moderate (SMD=0.26; 95% CI=0.03, 0.49; p=0.03; N=22) whereas long-term had small (SMD=0.15; 95% CI=0.02, 0.27; p=0.02; N=37) effects on short-term memory. In contrast, acute exercise showed moderate to large (SMD=0.52; 95% CI=0.28, 0.75; p<0.0001; N=20) whereas long-term exercise had insignificant effects (SMD=0.07; 95% CI=-0.13, 0.26; p=0.51; N=22) on long-term memory. We argue that acute and long-term cardiovascular exercise represent two distinct but complementary strategies to improve memory. Acute exercise improves memory in a time-dependent fashion by priming the molecular processes involved in the encoding and consolidation of newly acquired information. Long-term exercise, in contrast, has negligible effects on memory but provides the necessary stimuli to optimize the responses of the molecular machinery responsible for memory processing. Strategically combined, acute and long-term interventions could maximize the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on memory.

Keywords: Arousal; Brain derived neurotrophic factor; Cardiovascular exercise; Catecholamines; Cognition; Consolidation; Encoding; Memory; Physical activity; Retention.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Arousal / physiology
  • Brain / physiology
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Mental Recall / physiology
  • Retention, Psychology / physiology