The effect of acute and chronic exercise on cognitive function and academic performance in adolescents: A systematic review

J Sci Med Sport. 2017 Sep;20(9):841-848. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2016.11.025. Epub 2017 Jan 24.


Objectives: To investigate whether exercise, proposed to enhance neuroplasticity and potentially cognitive function (CF) and academic performance (AP), may be beneficial during adolescence when important developmental changes occur.

Design: Systematic review evaluating the impact of acute or chronic exercise on CF and AP in adolescents (13-18 years).

Methods: Nine databases (AMED, AusportMed, CINAHL, COCHRANE, Embase, Medline, Scopus, SPORTdiscus, Web of Science) were searched from earliest records to 31st October 2016, using keywords related to exercise, CF, AP and adolescents. Eligible studies included controlled trials examining the effect of any exercise intervention on CF, AP or both. Effect size (ES) (Hedges g) were calculated where possible.

Results: Ten papers (11 studies) were reviewed. Cognitive domains included: executive function (n=4), memory (n=4), attention/concentration (n=2), visuo-motor speed (n=1), logical sequencing (n=1) and psychometric aptitude (n=1). All papers, nine of 10 being acute studies, reported at least one parameter showing a significant effect of exercise in improving CF and AP. However, the CF parameters displayed substantial heterogeneity, with only 37% favouring acute and chronic exercise. Where ES could be calculated, 52% of the acute CF parameters favoured rest. Memory was the domain most consistently improved by exercise. Academic performance demonstrated a significant improvement with exercise in one of two acute studies and the only chronic study (p≤0.001).

Conclusions: The evidence for the effect of exercise on CF and AP in adolescents is equivocal and limited in quantity and quality. Well-designed research is therefore warranted to determine the benefits of exercise in enhancing CF and AP and reducing sedentary behaviour.

Keywords: Executive function; Learning; Physical activity; Physical fitness; School achievements; Thinking.

Publication types

  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Academic Performance*
  • Adolescent
  • Attention
  • Cognition*
  • Executive Function
  • Exercise*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Memory
  • Psychometrics