Background: The rapid lengthening of life expectancy has raised the problem of
providing social programs to counteract the age-related cognitive decline in a growing number of
older people. Physical activity stands among the most promising interventions aimed at brain
wellbeing, because of its effective neuroprotective action and low social cost. The purpose of this
review is to describe the neuroprotective role exerted by physical activity in different life stages. In
particular, we focus on adult neurogenesis, a process which has proved being highly responsive to
physical exercise and may represent a major factor of brain health over the lifespan.
Methods: The most recent literature related to the subject has been reviewed. The text has been
divided into three main sections, addressing the effects of physical exercise during childhood/
adolescence, adulthood and aging, respectively. For each one, the most relevant studies, carried out
on both human participants and rodent models, have been described.
Results: The data reviewed converge in indicating that physical activity exerts a positive effect on
brain functioning throughout the lifespan. However, uncertainty remains about the magnitude of the
effect and its biological underpinnings. Cellular and synaptic plasticity provided by adult neurogenesis
are highly probable mediators, but the mechanism for their action has yet to be conclusively
Conclusion: Despite alternative mechanisms of action are currently debated, age-appropriate
physical activity programs may constitute a large-scale, relatively inexpensive and powerful
approach to dampen the individual and social impact of age-related cognitive decline.