Neurobiological evidence of longer-term physical activity interventions on mental health outcomes and cognition in young people: a systematic review of randomised controlled trials

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review


External organisations

  • University of Birmingham


Objective: To investigate putative neurobiological mechanisms that link longer-term physical activity interventions to mental health and cognitive outcomes using randomised controlled trials in children, adolescents and young adults.

Data sources: A range of medical and psychological science electronic databases were searched (MEDLINE, EMBASE, Scopus, Web of Science, PsychINFO).

Review methods: Original research studies were selected, data were extracted and quality was appraised.

Results: Sixteen primary papers were included, ranging from healthy and community samples to subclinical and clinical populations across a variety of age ranges and using different neurobiological measures (e.g. magnetic resonance imaging, electroencephalography, cortisol, brain-derived neurotropic factor).

Discussion: The majority of studies report improvement in mental health and cognition outcomes following longer-term physical activity interventions which coincide with neurobiological alterations, especially neuroimaging alterations in activation and electrophysiological parameters in frontal areas. Future research should include measures of pre-existing fitness and target those who would benefit the most from this type of intervention (e.g. those with a lower level of fitness and at risk for or with mental health problems).

Bibliographic note

Publisher Copyright: © 2020


Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)431-441
Number of pages11
JournalNeuroscience and biobehavioral reviews
Early online date22 Oct 2020
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2021


  • BDNF, Cortisol, DTI, EEG, Exercise, fMRI, MRI

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