Mental fatigue can hamper physical performance, study finds

BIRMINGHAM, United Kingdom — It may be a good idea to give your mind a rest before your next workout or sporting event, according to new findings from the University of Birmingham. Scientists say that when we feel exhausted mentally, it can end up negatively impacting subsequent physical performances.

Researchers observed that people subjected to mentally demanding tasks found it more difficult to go on to perform physical exercise. More specifically, study authors measured the effects of cognitive tasks among a collection of 16 male and female participants, in order to examine what would happened to their perceptions of physical exertion. Ultimately, the results showed that mentally fatigued participants dealt with an increased sense of exertion during physical exercise.

All in all, the research team posits these findings suggest athletes should consider the implications of mental fatigue during training — as doing so may result in stronger performances. Moreover, they recommend that coaches do their best to cut down on athletes’ exposure to mentally challenging tasks, such as using a smartphone, both before and during training and competitions. Over the long term, athletes and coaches may even want to consider ‘brain endurance training’ to increase resilience to mental fatigue.

“We know that the brain plays a part in physical performance, but the specific effects of mental fatigue have not been well understood,” says lead study author Dr. Chris Ring in a media release.

“We know that athletes will often be browsing on their smartphones in rests between competing and training. All of that requires mental effort and our results strongly suggest that athletes and coaches need to better understand the effects of these activities on overall performance.”

During the examinations, subjects completed a 90-minute mental task involving the identification of letter sequences displayed on a screen. Next, they were asked to engage in a series of weight lifting repetitions. Meanwhile, a control cohort watched neutral videos before taking part in physical activity.

For the second experiment, participants completed a series of resistance training exercises, followed up by a 20-minute cycling time trial. Cognitive tasks were completed both before and between the exercises, while another control group again watched a neutral video. Following the cognitive tests, subjects completed an online exam to gauge levels of fatigue.

Across both experiments, study authors saw an increase in perceived exertion, or how hard it felt to perform the task, among the more mentally fatigued participants. During the second experiment, however, they also noted a reduced power in the cycling time trial, as well as less distance covered among mentally fatigued participants.

Moving forward, researchers are already working on testing the links between mental fatigue and performance among elite athletes in ‘real world’ exercise scenarios.

The study is published in the International Journal of Sports Physiology and Performance.

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John Anderer

Born blue in the face, John has been writing professionally for over a decade and covering the latest scientific research for StudyFinds since 2019. His work has been featured by Business Insider, Eat This Not That!, MSN, Ladders, and Yahoo!

Studies and abstracts can be confusing and awkwardly worded. He prides himself on making such content easy to read, understand, and apply to one’s everyday life.

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