12 2.3 Cognitive Benefits

In addition to the physiological benefits of regular physical activity participation, there are also numerous benefits related to cognitive functioning. Such benefits include, but are not limited to: heightened academic performance, improved brain function, and reduced risk of age-related cognitive impairment and disease.

Improved Academic Performance

Research has shown a consistent relationship between physical activity participation and enhanced academic performance (i.e., learning and cognitive outcomes) in children, with aerobic exercise producing the greatest benefits (Fedewa & Ahn, 2011). Several cognitive outcomes positively impacted by physical activity throughout childhood and young adulthood include: perceptual skills, intelligence quotients, and verbal and mathematical tests (Hillman, Erickson, & Kramer, 2008). However, further research is needed to examine the potential academic benefits in college-age and older populations.

Enhanced Brain Function

Oxidative stress, caused in part by the buildup of harmful free radicals within the body, may result in damage to brain functions…..regular physical activity participation increases the body’s ability to resist oxidative stress.Oxidative stress, caused in part by the buildup of harmful free radicals within the body, may result in damage to brain functions. Current research indicates that regular physical activity participation increases the body’s ability to resist oxidative stress. Optimal protection is provided via increased antioxidant activity when exercise is performed at specific intensity levels. Notably, habitual engagement in moderate-intensity aerobic physical activity appears to provide the greatest benefit for brain function (Camiletti‐Moirón, Aparicio, Aranda, & Radak, 2013).


A mounted, plastic replica of a skull with different colors representing different anatomical structures (e.g., blood vessels in red).
Regular participation in physical activity may improve the following components of cognitive health: academic performance, brain function, and resiliency to age-related impairment and disease. Photo by jesse orrico on Unsplash

Decreased Incidence and Risk for Age-Related Cognitive Impairment and Disease

Several studies have found a reduced risk for Alzheimer’s disease and dementia in individuals who engage in greater amounts of physical activity versus those who are more sedentary (Kramer & Erickson, 2007). Frequency of exercise engagement appears important, as older adults who engage in three or more sessions of physical activity per week are significantly less likely to be diagnosed with dementia than their counterparts who engage in fewer sessions per week (Larson et al., 2006). When examining only adults who have not been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or dementia, a reduction in risk for cognitive decline is apparent when physical fitness levels are improved (Barnes, Yaffe, Satariano, & Tager, (2003).


Comprehension check:

Provide an example of how participation in physical activity may enhance your cognitive functioning and brain health? Please be specific.

Works Cited

Barnes, D. E., Yaffe, K., Satariano, W. A., & Tager, I. B. (2003). A longitudinal study of cardiorespiratory fitness and cognitive function in healthy older adults. Journal of the American Geriatrics Society, 51(4), 459-465.

Camiletti‐Moirón, D., Aparicio, V. A., Aranda, P., & Radak, Z. (2013). Does exercise reduce brain oxidative stress? A systematic review. Scandinavian Journal of Medicine & Science in Sports, 23(4), e202-e212.

Fedewa, A. L., & Ahn, S. (2011). The effects of physical activity and physical fitness on children’s achievement and cognitive outcomes: a meta-analysis. Research Quarterly for Exercise and Sport, 82(3), 521-535.

Hillman, C. H., Erickson, K. I., & Kramer, A. F. (2008). Be smart, exercise your heart: exercise effects on brain and cognition. Nature Reviews Neuroscience, 9(1), 58-65.

Kramer, A. F., & Erickson, K. I. (2007). Capitalizing on cortical plasticity: influence of physical activity on cognition and brain function. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 11(8), 342-348.

Larson, E. B., Wang, L., Bowen, J. D., McCormick, W. C., Teri, L., Crane, P., & Kukull, W. (2006). Exercise is associated with reduced risk for incident dementia among persons 65 years of age and older. Annals of Internal Medicine, 144(2), 73-81.


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A Guide to Physical Activity Copyright © 2019 by Eydie Kramer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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