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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).

Original publication




Journal article


Neurosci Biobehav Rev

Publication Date





431 - 441


BDNF, Cortisol, DTI, EEG, Exercise, MRI, fMRI, Adolescent, Brain, Child, Cognition, Exercise, Humans, Mental Health, Outcome Assessment, Health Care, Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic