Mental fatigue is a psychobiological state caused by prolonged periods of demanding cognitive activity. It has recently been suggested that mental fatigue can affect physical performance. The objective of this review was to evaluate the literature on impairment of physical performance due to mental fatigue and to create an overview of the potential factors underlying this effect.
Two electronic databases, PubMed and Web of Science (until 28 April 2016), were searched for studies designed to test whether mental fatigue influenced performance of a physical task or influenced physiological and/or perceptual responses during the physical task. Studies using short (<30 min) self-regulatory depletion tasks were excluded from the review. A total of 11 articles were included, of which six were of strong and five of moderate quality. The general finding was a decline in endurance performance (decreased time to exhaustion and self-selected power output/velocity or increased completion time) associated with a higher than normal perceived exertion. Physiological variables traditionally associated with endurance performance (heart rate, blood lactate, oxygen uptake, cardiac output, maximal aerobic capacity) were unaffected by mental fatigue. Maximal strength, power, and anaerobic work were not affected by mental fatigue.
The duration and intensity of the physical task appear to be important factors in the decrease in physical performance due to mental fatigue. The most important factor responsible for the negative impact of mental fatigue on endurance performance is a higher perceived exertion.