A recent study concludes that intensive exercise may affect cognitive abilities.
Researchers at Hôpital de la Pitié-Salpêtrière in Paris, France, have found that overtraining syndrome may affect the brain, as well as the rest of the body.
Overtraining syndrome is a form of burnout in endurance athletes. It occurs as a result of intensive physical training overload.
The authors believe that this form of fatigue may involve some of the same neural circuitry as the fatigue that follows intensive intellectual work.
Scientists have already found that fatigue following excessive mental effort can affect cognitive control.
, sometimes called executive control, refers to a person's ability to change their behavior and thought processes to achieve their goals.
A physical training overload leads to a significant drop in physical performance as athletes experience an overwhelming sense of fatigue. The researchers wanted to test whether overtraining syndrome arises in part from neural fatigue in the brain, as well as from muscle tiredness.
They were also interested in whether the overtraining affected the same portion of the brain as excessive intellectual work.
The group recruited 37 competitive male endurance athletes with an average age of 35 years. The participants either continued with their regular exercise regimen or increased their training by 40% per session over 3 weeks.
The athletes participated in cycling exercises on their rest days so that the researchers could monitor their physical performance. They also completed questionnaires that asked them about their subjective experience of fatigue.
Finally, the researchers used behavioral tests and MRI scans to assess the participants' cognitive ability.
Assessing the effect
The study, which features in , showed that over 3 weeks, physical training overload led to the athletes feeling more fatigued and also behaving differently.
In tests that evaluated economic choices, the fatigued athletes were more likely to act impulsively.
MRI scans showed that physically overloading the athletes resulted in impaired activation of the lateral prefrontal cortex. This area of the brain is responsible for ; it influences decision-making, planning, behavioral inhibition, and motivational operations, among other behaviors.