Theoretical Review

Psychonomic Bulletin & Review

, Volume 20, Issue 1, pp 73-86

First online:

Benefits of regular aerobic exercise for executive functioning in healthy populations

  • Hayley GuineyAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology and Brain Health Research Centre, University of Otago
  • , Liana MachadoAffiliated withDepartment of Psychology and Brain Health Research Centre, University of Otago Email author 


Research suggests that regular aerobic exercise has the potential to improve executive functioning, even in healthy populations. The purpose of this review is to elucidate which components of executive functioning benefit from such exercise in healthy populations. In light of the developmental time course of executive functions, we consider separately children, young adults, and older adults. Data to date from studies of aging provide strong evidence of exercise-linked benefits related to task switching, selective attention, inhibition of prepotent responses, and working memory capacity; furthermore, cross-sectional fitness data suggest that working memory updating could potentially benefit as well. In young adults, working memory updating is the main executive function shown to benefit from regular exercise, but cross-sectional data further suggest that task-switching and posterror performance may also benefit. In children, working memory capacity has been shown to benefit, and cross-sectional data suggest potential benefits for selective attention and inhibitory control. Although more research investigating exercise-related benefits for specific components of executive functioning is clearly needed in young adults and children, when considered across the age groups, ample evidence indicates that regular engagement in aerobic exercise can provide a simple means for healthy people to optimize a range of executive functions.


Chronic physical activity Executive functions Cognitive control Children Young adults Older adults