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Table 4 Brain outcomes: findings from systematic reviews and meta-analyses

From: A critical evaluation of systematic reviews assessing the effect of chronic physical activity on academic achievement, cognition and the brain in children and adolescents: a systematic review



Systematic review results

Meta-analysis results

Critically low-quality reviews

Gunnell et al. [27]

Healthy children (1–17.99 years)

For brain function, increases, no changes or a mixture were interpreted as being supportive of brain function; for brain structure, results were favourable or null

Brain functiona:

PA vs none: Activation (n = 86, s = 3): 1/3 no change, 2/3 increased, decreased and no change ([study 1] decreased during anti-saccade task, increased or no change during flanker task; [study 2] no change in frontal or supplementary eye fields, increased in bilateral prefrontal cortex and decreased in bilateral parietal cortex)

Resting-state synchrony (n = 37, s = 1): 1/1 increases, decreases and no change

Blood flow (n = 30, s = 1): 1/1 no changes in cerebral blood flow velocity

Brain structure (n = 36, s = 2, same sample):

PA vs none: 1/2 improved white matter coherence and myelination, 1/2 no change


Bustamante, Williams, and Davis [39]

Overweight or obese children and/or adolescents

Benefits for neurologic outcomes following PA in high quality studies (RCT, s = 4, 2/4 brain function, 2/4 brain structure), but all from the same group; results from a quasi-experimental study (s = 1) suggest a neural benefit, but the study is of low rigor and suffers from confounding


Lubans et al. [41]b

Children (7–11 years)

5/6 studies reported significant brain changes (2/6 using EEG, 4/6 using MRI one of which explored brain structure), but there was little overlap between studies


  1. Abbreviations: n = number of participants, NA not assessed, PA = physical activity, RCT = randomised controlled-trial, s = study/studies
  2. aThe authors also included findings on changes in brain-derived neurotrophic factor, which are not measured by EEG or MRI and therefore excluded from this table. PA vs none: PA was compared to a sedentary control condition
  3. bThis study examined brain changes as potential mediators of cognitive changes, rather than exploring brain changes per se