Physical Activity, Fitness, and Executive Functions in Youth: Effects, Moderators, and Mechanisms

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Current Topics in Behavioral Neurosciences


Over the last decade, a growing body of research has examined the link between physical activity, fitness, and cognitive function in children and adolescents. Physical activity experimental research conducted with children and adolescents has identified selectively greater effects for tasks requiring higher order executive functions. As such, the primary aim of our chapter is to provide an overview of findings from systematic reviews and meta-analyses that have examined the effects of physical activity on measures of executive function in child and adolescent populations. We begin our chapter with definitions of key concepts associated with physical activity, fitness and cognitive function. We then provide a synthesis of systematic reviews and meta-analyses that have examined the acute and chronic effect of physical activity on EFs. Following this, we discuss the quantitative (e.g., time, intensity) and qualitative (e.g., type) characteristics of physical activity that may moderate effects. The next section focuses on the neurobiological, psychosocial and behavioral mechanisms responsible for the effect of physical activity on executive functions. We conclude by highlighting the limitations of the existing evidence base and providing recommendations for future research.

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