The Effects of Exercise on Memory Function Among Young to Middle-Aged Adults: Systematic Review and Recommendations for Future Research

Am J Health Promot. 2018 Mar;32(3):691-704. doi: 10.1177/0890117117737409. Epub 2017 Nov 6.


Objective: To systematically summarize the experimental effects of exercise on cognitive-related memory function among young to middle-aged adults, which has yet to be done in the literature.

Data source: PubMed.

Study inclusion and exclusion criteria: Studies were included if they were published in the English language, indexed in PubMed, employed an experimental study design (eg, traditional parallel group randomized controlled trial: either acute intervention or chronic/training intervention study), and conducted among human adults. Studies were excluded if nonhumans (ie, animal models) were studied, if children/adolescents (<18 years) or older adults (>50 years) were evaluated, and if select chronic diseases (eg, diabetes and dementia) were present.

Data extraction: A systematic review approach was employed.

Data synthesis: An extraction table was created synthesizing the key results, and recommendations for future research are emphasized.

Results: Among the 17 evaluated studies, 2 were published before the year 2000 (ie, 1998 and 1999), 2 were published in 2007, and the remaining 13 were published in the years 2011 and beyond. This highlights the emergence of this research topic within this age-group (young to middle-aged adults). Among the 17 evaluated studies, 14 were conducted among healthy samples, with 3 conducted among those with a diagnosis of depression. Among the 17 studies, 4 employed a chronic training protocol, with 13 utilizing an acute exercise protocol. Among the 3 experimental studies in the depressed population, all demonstrated a favorable effect of exercise on memory function. Among the 14 trials in the nondepressed population, 10 (71%) demonstrated a favorable effect of exercise on some aspect of memory function.

Conclusion: Acute and chronic exercise appears to play a pronounced effect on memory function among young to middle-aged adults. Implications and recommendations for future research are outlined in this systematic review.

Keywords: episodic memory; exercise; prospective memory; retrospective memory.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Clinical Trials as Topic
  • Cognition / physiology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Health Status
  • Humans
  • Memory / physiology*
  • Middle Aged
  • Time Factors
  • Young Adult