32 Recent Meta-Analyses of the Effects of Exercise

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Exercise's Effects on Psychological Health, Well-being, Disorders, Cognition, & Quality of Life:

32 Meta-Analyses Published in 2013-17

Kenneth S. Pope, Ph.D., ABPP

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This site includes 3 related sections on recent meta-analyses:

I searched out meta-analytic studies of exercise's psychological effects on cognition, psychological disorders, psychological health, and quality of life, to help clinicians, expert witnesses, researchers, and others to stay abreast of the evolving research in this area. 

I focused on recent studies (i.e., published in 2013-17), and included both the citation and a brief excerpt for each study.


  1. Bartley, C. A., et al. (2013). "Meta-analysis: aerobic exercise for the treatment of anxiety disorders." Prog Neuropsychopharmacol Biol Psychiatry 45: 34-39.

    EXCERPT: "Aerobic exercise demonstrated no significant effect for the treatment of anxiety disorders.... Current evidence does not support the use of aerobic exercise as an effective treatment for anxiety disorders as compared to the control conditions. This remains true when controlling for length of exercise sessions and type of anxiety disorder."

  2. Bullo, V., et al. (2015). "The effects of Pilates exercise training on physical fitness and wellbeing in the elderly: A systematic review for future exercise prescription." Preventive Medicine: An International Journal Devoted to Practice and Theory 75: 1-11.

    EXCERT: "Overall, PET showed large ES [effect sizes] to improve muscle strength…, walking and gait performances…, activities of daily living, mood states and quality of life…, moderate to high effect on dynamic balance…, small effects on static balance…and flexibility…, while a small effect on cardio-metabolic outcomes…. PET [Pilates exercise training] should be taken into account as a way to improve quality of life in the elderly, due to the imparted benefits of fall prevention, physical fitness, and mood states."

  3. Carayol, M., et al. (2013). "Psychological effect of exercise in women with breast cancer receiving adjuvant therapy: what is the optimal dose needed?" Ann Oncol 24(2): 291-300.

    EXCERPT: "Exercise intervention improved fatigue, depression, and QoL [quality of life] in patients with breast cancer receiving adjuvant therapy. Prescription of relatively low doses of exercise (<12 MET h/week) consisting in approximately 90-120 min of weekly moderate physical exercise seems more efficacious in improving fatigue and QoL than higher doses."

  4. Carter, T., et al. (2016). "The effect of exercise on depressive symptoms in adolescents: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Journal of the American Academy of Child & Adolescent Psychiatry 55(7): 580-590.

    EXCERPT: "Physical exercise appears to improve depressive symptoms in adolescents, especially in clinical samples in which the moderate antidepressant effect, higher methodological quality, and lowered statistical heterogeneity suggest that exercise may be a useful treatment strategy for depression."

  5. Cerrillo-Urbina, A. J., et al. (2015). "The effects of physical exercise in children with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder: A systematic review and meta-analysis of randomized control trials." Child: Care, Health and Development.

    EXCERPT: The meta-analysis suggests that aerobic exercise had a moderate to large effect on core symptoms such as attention (SMD = 0.84), hyperactivity (SMD = 0.56) and impulsivity (SMD = 0.56) and related symptoms such as anxiety (SMD = 0.66), executive function (SMD = 0.58) and social disorders (SMD = 0.59) in children with ADHD. Yoga exercise suggests an improvement in the core symptoms of ADHD…. The main cumulative evidence indicates that short-term aerobic exercise, based on several aerobic intervention formats, seems to be effective for mitigating symptoms such as attention, hyperactivity, impulsivity, anxiety, executive function and social disorders in children with ADHD."

  6. Cooney, G. M., et al. (2013). "Exercise for depression." Cochrane Database Syst Rev 9: CD004366.

    EXCERPT: "Exercise is moderately more effective than a control intervention for reducing symptoms of depression, but analysis of methodologically robust trials only shows a smaller effect in favour of exercise. When compared to psychological or pharmacological therapies, exercise appears to be no more effective, though this conclusion is based on a few small trials."

  7. Dalgas, U., et al. (2015). "The effect of exercise on depressive symptoms in multiple sclerosis based on a meta-analysis and critical review of the literature." European Journal of Neurology 22(3): 443-456.

    EXCERPT: "Exercise may be a potential treatment to prevent or reduce depressive symptoms in individuals with MS, but existing studies do not allow solid conclusions. Future well-designed studies evaluating the effects of exercise on depressive symptoms and major depression disorder in MS are highly warranted."

  8. Dauwan, M., Begemann, M. J., Heringa, S. M., & Sommer, I. E. (2016). "Exercise improves clinical symptoms, quality of life, global functioning, and depression in schizophrenia: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Schizophrenia bulletin, 42(3), 588-599.

    EXCERPTS: "Physical exercise is a robust add-on treatment for improving clinical symptoms, quality of life, global functioning, and depressive symptoms in patients with schizophrenia. The effect on cognition is not demonstrated, but may be present for yoga."

  9. Du, S., et al. (2015). "Taichi exercise for self-rated sleep quality in older people: A systematic review and meta-analysis." International Journal of Nursing Studies 52(1): 368-379.

    EXCERPT: "Weak evidence shows that Taichi exercise has a beneficial effect in improving self-rated sleep quality for older adults, suggesting that Taichi could be an effective alternative and complementary approach to existing therapies for older people with sleep problems."

  10. Eng, J. J. and B. Reime (2014). "Exercise for depressive symptoms in stroke patients: A systematic review and meta-analysis." Clinical Rehabilitation 28(8): 731-739.

    EXCERPT: "There was a significant effect of exercise on depressive symptoms when higher intensity studies were pooled, but not for lower intensity exercise protocols."

  11. Ensari, R. (2014). "Exercise training improves depressive symptoms in people with multiple sclerosis: Results of a meta-analysis." Journal of Psychosomatic Research.

    EXCERPT: "The cumulative evidence indicates that exercise training can yield a small, yet statistically significant and reliable reduction in depressive symptoms for people with MS."

  12. Ensari, I., et al. (2015). "Meta-analysis of acute exercise effects on state anxiety: An update of randomized controlled trials over the past 25 years." Depression and Anxiety 32(8): 624-634.

    EXCERPT: "The cumulative evidence from high quality studies indicates that acute bouts of exercise can yield a small reduction in state anxiety."

  13. Farina, N., et al. (2013). "The effect of exercise interventions on cognitive outcome in Alzheimer's disease: a systematic review." International Psychogeriatrics, Vol 26(1), 9-18.

    EXCERPT: "From the six studies reviewed, the evidence suggests that exercise can have a positive effect on rate of cognitive decline in AD. However, the variation between study designs makes conclusions regarding the optimum intervention on cognitive outcome in AD difficult."

  14. Firth, J., et al. (2015). "A systematic review and meta-analysis of exercise interventions in schizophrenia patients." Psychological Medicine 45(7): 1343-1361.

    EXCERPT: "Psychiatric symptoms were significantly reduced by interventions using around 90 min of moderate-to-vigorous exercise per week (standardized mean difference: 0.72, 95% confidence interval −1.14 to −0.29). This amount of exercise was also reported to significantly improve functioning, co-morbid disorders and neurocognition."

  15. Forbes et al. (2013). "Exercise for People with Dementia." Cochrane Review, December 4.

    EXCERPT: "There is promising evidence that exercise programs can have a significant impact in improving ability to perform ADLs and possibly in improving cognition in people with dementia, although some caution is advised in interpreting these findings. The programs revealed no significant effect on challenging behaviours or depression. There was little or no evidence regarding the remaining outcomes of interest."

  16. Gates, N., et al. (2013). "The Effect of Exercise Training on Cognitive Function in Older Adults with Mild Cognitive Impairment: A Meta-analysis of Randomized Controlled Trials." Am J Geriatr Psychiatry.

    EXCERPT: "Meta-analysis revealed negligible but significant effects of exercise on verbal fluency (ES: 0.17 [0.04, 0.30]). No significant benefit was found for additional executive measures, memory, or information processing. Overall results were inconsistent with benefits varying across exercise types and cognitive domains.... There is very limited evidence that exercise improves cognitive function in individuals with MCI, although published research is of moderate quality and inconclusive due to low statistical power."

  17. Heinzel, S., et al. (2015). "Using exercise to fight depression in older adults: A systematic review and meta-analysis." GeroPsych: The Journal of Gerontopsychology and Geriatric Psychiatry 28(4): 149-162.

    EXCERPT: "The results of this meta-analysis suggest that physical exercise may serve as a feasible, additional intervention to fight depression in older adults."

  18. Josefsson, T., et al. (2013). "Physical exercise intervention in depressive disorders: Meta-analysis and systematic review." Scand J Med Sci Sports.

    EXCERPT: "The main result showed a significant large overall effect favoring exercise intervention. The effect size was even larger when only trials that had used no treatment or placebo conditions were analyzed. Nevertheless, effect size was reduced to a moderate level when only studies with high methodological quality were included in the analysis. Exercise may be recommended for people with mild and moderate depression who are willing, motivated, and physically healthy enough to engage in such a program."

  19. Karr, J. E., et al. (2014). "An empirical comparison of the therapeutic benefits of physical exercise and cognitive training on the executive functions of older adults: A meta-analysis of controlled trials." Neuropsychology 28(6): 829-845.

    EXCERPT: "Both treatments improved executive functions, but CT [cognitive training] presented a potential advantage at improving executive functions. Improvements in executive functions differed depending on construct for CT, whereas each construct produced similar, modest effect sizes for PE [physical exercise].

  20. Kvam, Siri; Kleppe, Catrine Lykkedrang; Nordhus, Inger Hilde; Hovland, Anders (2016). "Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis." Journal of Affective Disorders, Vol 202, Sep 15 , 2016, 67-86.

    EXCERPT: Physical exercise had a moderate to large significant effect on depression compared to control conditions (g=−0.68), but the effect was small and not significant at follow-up (g=−0.22). Exercise compared to no intervention yielded a large and significant effect size (g=−1.24), and exercise had a moderate and significant effect compared to usual care (g=−0.48). The effects of exercise when compared to psychological treatments or antidepressant medication were small and not significant (g=−0.22 and g=−0.08, respectively). Exercise as an adjunct to antidepressant medication yielded a moderate effect (g=−0.50) that trended toward significance."

  21. Mammen, G. and G. Faulkner (2013). "Physical Activity and the Prevention of Depression: A Systematic Review of Prospective Studies." American Journal of Preventive Medicine 45(5): 649-657.

    EXCERPT: "After a thorough selection process, 30 studies were included for analyses. Among these, 25 studies demonstrated that baseline PA was negatively associated with a risk of subsequent depression. The majority of these studies were of high methodologic quality, providing consistent evidence that PA may prevent future depression. There is promising evidence that any level of PA, including low levels (e.g., walking <150 minutes/weeks), can prevent future depression."

  22. McClellan, R. (2013). "Exercise programs for patients with cancer improve physical functioning and quality of life." J Physiother 59(1): 57.

    EXCERPT: "Based on quantitative pooling of available data there were statistically significant improvement in insulin-like growth factor-I, muscle strength, fatigue, depression, and quality of life in favour of exercise for patients with breast cancer. Based on quantitative pooling of data from studies of different types of cancer, there were improvements in favour of exercise in body mass index, body weight, peak oxygen consumption, distance walked in 6 minutes, handgrip strength and quality of life.... Exercise programs for patients who have completed their treatment for cancer result in positive effects in a range of health indicators including physical functioning and quality of life."

  23. Ng, L. W., et al. (2013). "Is supervised exercise training safe in patients with anorexia nervosa? A meta-analysis." Physiotherapy 99(1): 1-11.

    EXCERPT: "Inclusion of supervised exercise training in the comprehensive management of patients with anorexia nervosa appears to be safe, as no detrimental effect was observed in anthropometry. Strength and cardiovascular fitness were also shown to improve."

  24. Pearsall, R. (2014). "Exercise therapy in adults with serious mental illness: A systematic review and meta-analysis." BMC, vol. 14, article 114.

    EXCERPT: "This systematic review showed that exercise therapies can lead to a modest increase in levels of exercise activity but overall there was no noticeable change for symptoms of mental health, body mass index, and body weight."

  25. Prem, V., et al. (2013). "Effect of diaphragmatic breathing exercise on quality of life in subjects with asthma: A systematic review." Physiother Theory Pract 29(4): 271-277.

    EXCERPT: "There is a moderate evidence of improvement in QoL following diaphragmatic breathing both in short-term and long-term basis."

  26. Roig, M., et al. (2013). "The effects of cardiovascular exercise on human memory: A review with meta-analysis." Neurosci Biobehav Rev 37(8): 1645-1666.

    EXCERPT: "Data from 29 and 21 studies including acute and long-term cardiovascular interventions were retrieved. Meta-analyses revealed that acute exercise had moderate (SMD=0.26; 95% CI=0.03, 0.49; p=0.03; N=22) whereas long-term had small (SMD=0.15; 95% CI=0.02, 0.27; p=0.02; N=37) effects on short-term memory. In contrast, acute exercise showed moderate to large (SMD=0.52; 95% CI=0.28, 0.75; p<0.0001; N=20) whereas long-term exercise had insignificant effects (SMD=0.07; 95% CI=-0.13, 0.26; p=0.51; N=22) on long-term memory.... Strategically combined, acute and long-term interventions could maximize the benefits of cardiovascular exercise on memory."

  27. Schuch, Felipe B.; Vancampfort, Davy; Rosenbaum, Simon; Richards, Justin; Ward, Philip B.; Stubbs, Brendon. (2016). Exercise improves physical and psychological quality of life in people with depression: A meta-analysis including the evaluation of control group response. Psychiatry Research, Vol 241, Jul 30 , 2016, 47-54.

    EXCERPTS: "Exercise significantly improved physical and psychological domains and overall QoL. Effects on social relationship and environment domains were not significant. No significant control group response was found for any domain or overall QoL. Exercise can be considered as a therapeutic strategy to improve physical and psychological domains and overall QoL of people with depression, with no effect evident across the social and environmental domains. The lack of improvement among control groups reinforces the role of exercise as a treatment for depression with benefits to QoL."

  28. Schuch, Felipe B.; Vancampfort, Davy; Rosenbaum, Simon; Richards, Justin; Ward, Philip B.; Stubbs, Brendon. (2016) "Exercise as a treatment for depression: A meta-analysis adjusting for publication bias." Journal of Psychiatric Research Volume 77, June, Pages 42–51.

    EXCERPT: "Overall, exercise had a large and significant effect on depression (SMD adjusted for publication bias = 1.11 (95% CI 0.79–1.43)) with a fail-safe number of 1057. Most adjusted analyses suggested publication bias led to an underestimated SMD. Larger effects were found for interventions in MDD, utilising aerobic exercise, at moderate and vigorous intensities, in a supervised and unsupervised format. In MDD, larger effects were found for moderate intensity, aerobic exercise, and interventions supervised by exercise professionals. Exercise has a large and significant antidepressant effect in people with depression (including MDD). Previous meta-analyses may have underestimated the benefits of exercise due to publication bias. Our data strongly support the claim that exercise is an evidence-based treatment for depression."

  29. Silveira, H., et al. (2013). "Physical exercise and clinically depressed patients: a systematic review and meta-analysis." Neuropsychobiology 67(2): 61-68.

    EXCERPT: "Despite the heterogeneity of the studies, the present meta-analysis concluded that physical exercise improves the response to treatment, especially aerobic training. However, the efficacy of exercise in the treatment of depression was influenced by age and severity of symptoms."

  30. Tan, Beron W. Z.; Pooley, Julie A.; Speelman, Craig P. (2016). "A meta-analytic review of the efficacy of physical exercise interventions on cognition in individuals with autism spectrum disorder and ADHD." Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, Vol 46(9), Sep 2016, 3126-3143.

    EXCERPTS: "The results revealed an overall small to medium effect of exercise on cognition, supporting the efficacy of exercise interventions in enhancing certain aspects of cognitive performance in individuals with ASD and/or ADHD. Specifically, similar to the general population literature, the cognitive benefits of exercise are not consistent across all aspects of cognitive functions (i.e., some areas are not improved)."

  31. Verburgh, L., et al. (2013). "Physical exercise and executive functions in preadolescent children, adolescents and young adults: a meta-analysis." Br J Sports Med.

    EXCERPT: "Results suggest that acute physical exercise enhances executive functioning. The number of studies on chronic physical exercise is limited and it should be investigated whether chronic physical exercise shows effects on executive functions comparable to acute physical exercise. This is highly relevant in preadolescent children and adolescents, given the importance of well-developed executive functions for daily life functioning and the current increase in sedentary behaviour in these age groups."

  32. Wang, D., et al. (2014). "Impact of physical exercise on substance use disorders: A meta-analysis." PLoS ONE 9(10).

    EXCERPT: "The moderate and high-intensity aerobic exercises, designed according to the Guidelines of American College of Sports Medicine, and the mind-body exercises can be an effective and persistent treatment for those with SUD [substance use disorders]."


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