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Physical exercise is seen as a promising intervention to prevent or delay cognitive decline in individuals aged 50 years and older, yet the evidence from reviews is not conclusive.To determine if physical exercise is effective in improving cognitive function in this population.Systematic review with multilevel meta-analysis.Electronic databases Medline (PubMed), EMBASE (Scopus), PsychINFO and CENTRAL (Cochrane) from inception to November 2016.Randomised controlled trials of physical exercise interventions in community-dwelling adults older than 50 years, with an outcome measure of cognitive function.The search returned 12 820 records, of which 39 studies were included in the systematic review. Analysis of 333 dependent effect sizes from 36 studies showed that physical exercise improved cognitive function (0.29; 95% CI 0.17 to 0.41; p<0.01). Interventions of aerobic exercise, resistance training, multicomponent training and tai chi, all had significant point estimates. When exercise prescription was examined, a duration of 45–60 min per session and at least moderate intensity, were associated with benefits to cognition. The results of the meta-analysis were consistent and independent of the cognitive domain tested or the cognitive status of the participants.Physical exercise improved cognitive function in the over 50s, regardless of the cognitive status of participants. To improve cognitive function, this meta-analysis provides clinicians with evidence to recommend that patients obtain both aerobic and resistance exercise of at least moderate intensity on as many days of the week as feasible, in line with current exercise guidelines.