Exercise starts and ends in the brain

Eur J Appl Physiol. 2003 Oct;90(3-4):411-9. doi: 10.1007/s00421-003-0902-7. Epub 2003 Jul 19.


Classically the limit to endurance of exercise is explained in terms of metabolic capacity. Cardio-respiratory capacity and muscle fatigue are thought to set the limit and the majority of studies on factors limiting endurance exercise discuss issues such as maximal oxygen uptake (VO2max), aerobic enzyme capacity, cardiac output, glycogen stores, etc. However, this paradigm does not explain the limitation to endurance exercise with large muscle groups at altitude, when at exhaustion exercise is ended without limb locomotor muscle fatigue and with sub-maximal cardiac output. A simple fact provides a basis for an explanation. Voluntary exercise starts and ends in the brain. It starts with spatial and temporal recruitment of motor units and ends with their de-recruitment. A conscious decision precedes a voluntary effort. The end of effort is again volitional and a forced conscious decision to stop precedes it, but it is unknown what forces the off-switch of recruitment at exhaustion although sensation of exertion certainly plays a role. An alternative model explaining the limitation of exercise endurance thus proposes that the central nervous system integrates input from various sources all related to the exercise and limits the intensity and duration of recruitment of limb skeletal muscle to prevent jeopardizing the integrity of the organism. This model acknowledges the cardio-respiratory and muscle metabolic capacities as prime actors on the performance scene, while crediting the central nervous system for its pivotal role as the ultimate site where exercise starts and ends.

Publication types

  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Adolescent
  • Adult
  • Aged
  • Airway Resistance / physiology
  • Altitude
  • Brain / metabolism
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Energy Metabolism / physiology
  • Exercise / physiology*
  • Exhalation / physiology
  • Female
  • Heart Rate / physiology
  • Humans
  • Lactic Acid / blood
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Models, Neurological
  • Oxygen Consumption / physiology
  • Physical Endurance / physiology


  • Lactic Acid