The Effect of Physical Activity Interventions on Children's Cognition and Metacognition: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis

J Am Acad Child Adolesc Psychiatry. 2017 Sep;56(9):729-738. doi: 10.1016/j.jaac.2017.06.012. Epub 2017 Jul 6.


Objective: The objective was twofold: to assess the effect of physical activity (PA) interventions on children's and adolescents' cognition and metacognition; and to determine the characteristics of individuals and PA programs that enhance the development of cognitive and metacognitive functions.

Method: We systematically searched MEDLINE, EMBASE, Cochrane Central Register of Controlled Trials, Web of Science, and PsycINFO databases from their inception to October 16, 2016. Intervention studies aimed at examining the exercise-cognition interaction at a developmental age were included in this systematic review and meta-analysis. Random-effects models were used to calculate pooled effect size (ES) values and their corresponding 95% CIs. Subgroup analyses were conducted to examine the effect of participants' and PA programs' characteristics.

Results: A total of 36 studies were included in this systematic review and meta-analysis. Pooled ES estimations were as follows: nonexecutive cognitive functions 0.23 (95% CI = 0.09-0.37); core executive functions 0.20 (95% CI = 0.10-0.30), including working memory (0.14 [95% CI = 0.00-0.27]), selective attention-inhibition (0.26 [95% CI = 0.10-0.41]), and cognitive flexibility (0.11 [95% CI = -0.10 to 0.32]); and metacognition 0.23 (95% CI = 0.13-0.32), including higher-level executive functions (0.19 [95% CI = 0.06-0.31]) and cognitive life skills (0.30 [95% CI = 0.15-0.45]).

Conclusion: PA benefits several domains of cognition and metacognition in youth. Curricular physical education interventions and programs aimed at increasing daily PA seem to be the most effective.

Keywords: cognition; exercise; metacognition; physical activity.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Child
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exercise Therapy*
  • Humans
  • Metacognition / physiology*
  • Outcome Assessment, Health Care*