Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Mental fatigue limits physical performance. is all connected.

A few times here I've pointed to stuff about the importance of limiting chronic stress because of the hormonal consequences of stress. Here is a study that explains that simply being mentally tired can limit your physical performance - because it seems harder.

Mental fatigue impairs physical performance in humans

Mental fatigue is a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity. Although the impact of mental fatigue on cognitive and skilled performance is well known, its effect on physical performance has not been thoroughly investigated. In this randomized crossover study, 16 subjects cycled to exhaustion at 80% of their peak power output after 90 min of a demanding cognitive task (mental fatigue) or 90 min of watching emotionally neutral documentaries (control). After experimental treatment, a mood questionnaire revealed a state of mental fatigue (P = 0.005) that significantly reduced time to exhaustion (640 ± 316 s) compared with the control condition (754 ± 339 s) (P = 0.003). This negative effect was not mediated by cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic factors as physiological responses to intense exercise remained largely unaffected. Self-reported success and intrinsic motivation related to the physical task were also unaffected by prior cognitive activity. However, mentally fatigued subjects rated perception of effort during exercise to be significantly higher compared with the control condition (P = 0.007). As ratings of perceived exertion increased similarly over time in both conditions (P < style="font-weight: bold;"> our study provides experimental evidence that mental fatigue limits exercise tolerance in humans through higher perception of effort rather than cardiorespiratory and musculoenergetic mechanisms. Future research in this area should investigate the common neurocognitive resources shared by physical and mental activity.

There is a good commentary on the study here.

Applying the results

The research model may also be helpful for military personnel. They do physically demanding tasks after long period of vigilance. Vigilance produces mental fatigue.

Finally, the study suggests that people doing high intensity training, such as competitive athletes, should do their training while mentally rested. However, people who exercise after work should continue doing so, even if mentally fatigued. Most people work out at a moderate intensity, which still gives plenty of physiological and psychological benefit, including relief from stress and improved mental performance.

Interesting stuff.


Chris - said...

I'm curious what pool the subjects were selected from.

The points about limiting chronic stress, and its effects on perceived effort are well taken and very applicable.

However, I do wonder if this would have really changed the time to exhaustion among subjects who were used to routinely pushing as hard as they could.

The "volational" failure used in studies is usually just that - voluntary. I suspect that the tolerance for discomfort can be trained, just like anything else. I also suspect that trained subjects are less likely to fold because the effort feels harder.

Maybe I'm being overly macho here, not sure. I will acknowledge that I get better workouts when I go into them feeling good.

Mike T Nelson said...

Very cool study! I just read it the other day! Thanks for posting.

Rock on
Mike T Nelson