Exercise, sports, and performance arts benefit cognition via a common process

Psychol Bull. 2019 Sep;145(9):929-951. doi: 10.1037/bul0000200. Epub 2019 Jun 13.


Exercise training is widely promoted as a method to enhance both physical health and cognitive function. Although routine exercise engenders physiological adaptations to the body and brain, its effects on mental processing are uncertain. Our review of the experimental evidence reveals that acknowledging the role of skill acquisition may help clarify the exercise-cognition relation. Instructional methods that optimize physical and mental challenge provide the conditions necessary to produce long-term changes in the way individuals process information, make decisions, select movements, and experience the consequences of actions. Main conclusions drawn by intersecting theory-based research on the linkages between chronic exercise and cognitive function and research on the associations of both sport and performance arts with cognitive function are as follows: (1) Exercise may be but one of many types of movement activities that can benefit cognition; (2) the process of skill acquisition provides a parsimonious explanation for outcomes across exercise, sport, and performing art studies; (3) the allocation of mental resources required during skill acquisition, independently from or interactively with the level of physical energy expenditure, is essential for reaping the largest cognitive benefits; and (4) cognitive benefits obtained via skill-acquisition interventions are enduring. This review also highlights issues that call for future research to provide convergent evidence for the relation between skill training and cognition; the inclusion of outcome measures other than executive functions; and a naturalistic translational approach to complement controlled experiments in chronic exercise and cognition and skill learning research. (PsycINFO Database Record (c) 2019 APA, all rights reserved).

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Art*
  • Cognition / physiology*
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Humans
  • Sports / psychology*