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Reviews in the Neurosciences

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Volume 22, Issue 2 (Apr 2011)


The positive impact of physical activity on cognition during adulthood: a review of underlying mechanisms, evidence and recommendations

John J. Ratey
  • Harvard Medical School, 328 Broadway, Cambridge, MA 02139, USA
  • Email:
/ James E. Loehr
  • Human Performance Institute, Orlando, FL 32827, USA
Published Online: 2011-04-12 | DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/rns.2011.017


A growing body of literature suggests that physical activity beneficially influences brain function during adulthood, particularly frontal lobe-mediated cognitive processes, such as planning, scheduling, inhibition, and working memory. For our hunter-gatherer ancestors, times of famine interspersed with times of feast necessitated bouts of intense physical activity balanced by periods of rest. However, the sedentary lifestyle that pervades modern society has overridden the necessity for a physically active lifestyle. The impact of inactivity on disease processes has been the focus of much attention; the growing understanding that physical activity also has the benefit of enhancing cognitive performance strengthens the imperative for interventions that are successful in increasing physical activity, with the outcomes of promoting health and productivity. Population health and performance programs that promote physical activity provide benefits for employees and employers through improvements in worker health and performance and financial returns for the company. In this review, we examine the mechanisms by which physical activity improves cognition. We also review studies that evaluate the effects of physical activity on cognitive executive performance in adulthood, including longitudinal studies that address the impact of physical activity during early adulthood and midlife on preservation of cognition later in life. This is of particular importance given that adulthood represents prime working years and that physical activity promotion is a key component of population health and performance programs. Finally, we provide recommendations for maximizing the lasting benefits of movement and physical activity on cognition in adulthood.

Keywords: cognition; cognitive reserve; executive function; exercise; movement; physical activity; population health

About the article

Corresponding author

Published Online: 2011-04-12

Published in Print: 2011-04-01

Citation Information: Reviews in the Neurosciences, ISSN (Online) 2191-0200, ISSN (Print) 0334-1763, DOI: https://doi.org/10.1515/rns.2011.017. Export Citation

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