The influence of physical activity on neural responses to visual food cues in humans: A systematic review of functional magnetic resonance imaging studies

Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2023 Sep:152:105247. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2023.105247. Epub 2023 May 25.


This systematic review examined whether neural responses to visual food-cues measured by functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) are influenced by physical activity. Seven databases were searched up to February 2023 for human studies evaluating visual food-cue reactivity using fMRI alongside an assessment of habitual physical activity or structured exercise exposure. Eight studies (1 exercise training, 4 acute crossover, 3 cross-sectional) were included in a qualitative synthesis. Structured acute and chronic exercise appear to lower food-cue reactivity in several brain regions, including the insula, hippocampus, orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), postcentral gyrus and putamen, particularly when viewing high-energy-density food cues. Exercise, at least acutely, may enhance appeal of low-energy-density food-cues. Cross-sectional studies show higher self-reported physical activity is associated with lower reactivity to food-cues particularly of high-energy-density in the insula, OFC, postcentral gyrus and precuneus. This review shows that physical activity may influence brain food-cue reactivity in motivational, emotional, and reward-related processing regions, possibly indicative of a hedonic appetite-suppressing effect. Conclusions should be drawn cautiously given considerable methodological variability exists across limited evidence.

Keywords: Appetite; Brain; Exercise; Functional magnetic resonance imaging; Physical activity; Visual food cues.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review
  • Review
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Brain / physiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Cues*
  • Exercise
  • Food*
  • Humans
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging / methods