Effects of Physical Activity on Executive Functions, Attention and Academic Performance in Preadolescent Children: A Meta-Analysis

J Sci Med Sport. 2018 May;21(5):501-507. doi: 10.1016/j.jsams.2017.09.595. Epub 2017 Oct 10.


Objectives: The aim of this meta-analysis was to provide a systematic review of intervention studies that investigated the effects of physical activity on multiple domains of executive functions, attention and academic performance in preadolescent children (6-12 years of age). In addition, a systematic quantification of the effects of physical activity on these domains is provided.

Design: Systematic review and meta-analysis.

Methods: Searches of electronic databases and examining relevant reviews between 2000 and April 2017 resulted in 31 intervention studies meeting the inclusion criteria. Four subdomains of executive functions (inhibition, working memory, cognitive flexibility and planning), three subdomains of attention (selective, divided and sustained) and three subdomains of academic performance (mathematics, spelling and reading) were distinguished. Effects for different study designs (acute physical activity or longitudinal physical activity programs), type of physical activity (aerobic or cognitively engaging) and duration of intervention were examined separately.

Results: Acute physical activity has a positive effect on attention (g=0.43; 95% CI=0.09, 0.77; 6 studies), while longitudinal physical activity programs has a positive effect on executive functions (g=0.24; 95% CI=0.09, 0.39; 12 studies), attention (g=0.90; 95% CI=0.56, 1.24; 1 study) and academic performance (g=0.26; 95% CI=0.02, 0.49; 3 studies). The effects did depend on the subdomain.

Conclusions: Positive effects were found for physical activity on executive functions, attention and academic performance in preadolescent children. Largest effects are expected for interventions that aim for continuous regular physical activity over several weeks.

Keywords: Academic achievement; Cognition; Exercise; Primary school children; Review.

Publication types

  • Meta-Analysis
  • Review
  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Academic Performance*
  • Attention / physiology*
  • Child
  • Executive Function / physiology*
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Inhibition, Psychological
  • Male
  • Memory, Short-Term / physiology*
  • Time Factors