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Mental effort increases physical fatigue, reduces HR variability

December 15th, 2011

A pretty neat study just appeared online at European Journal of Applied Physiology, looking at the links between mental effort and physical fatigue. This is a topic I’ve touched on previously, and find really interesting. The new study, from researchers at Michigan Technological University and Virginia Tech, adds some new wrinkles.

The protocol is quite complex, but basically a bunch of volunteers did fatiguing shoulder exercises while doing mental arithmetic (“Here’s a number, multiply it by three… now multiply it by three again…” etc.). The researchers measured how quickly the subjects’ shoulders fatigued, and how quickly they recovered and returned to full strength in the 15 minutes after the exercise bout. As you can probably guess, the subjects doing mental arithmetic lost strength and reached failure more quickly than the controls.

Why does this happen? Well, the researchers discuss some previous work suggesting that mental activity triggers stress which triggers low-level muscular contractions, which can lead to premature fatigue. But I actually find another explanation more convincing:

It has been shown that fatiguing contractions require high attentional demands due to changes in the excitability of motor cortex. As such, it could be argued that additional mental demand in the current study may have reduced available attentional resources needed to increase the drive to motor neurons to maintain the required force levels, resulting in early task failure (i.e., shorter endurance times).

In other words, it takes focus and mental effort to push to your limits, and those are finite quantities that can be squandered thinking about other things. That seems like the simplest explanation to me, and it would fit with the research by Samuele Marcora that I mentioned above.

A neat additional observation: the mental arithmetic resulted in lower “heart rate variability” (HRV). Basically, you measure the time between successive heart beats — if that time is always identical, you have low HRV; if it fluctuates, you have higher HRV. This tells you something about the balance between sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems; when you’re under stress, the sympathetic system ramps up and release norepinephrine (aka noradrenaline), which elevates your heart rate but reduces heart rate variability. The result: it takes longer for your heart rate to settle back to normal — which is exactly what the researchers observed in the subjects doing the mental arithmetic.