Two days of calorie deprivation impairs high level cognitive processes, mood, and self-reported exertion during aerobic exercise: A randomized double-blind, placebo-controlled study

Brain Cogn. 2019 Jun;132:33-40. doi: 10.1016/j.bandc.2019.02.003. Epub 2019 Mar 2.


Military personnel and emergency responders perform cognitively-demanding tasks during periods of sustained physical exertion and limited caloric intake. Cognitive function is preserved during short-term caloric restriction, but it is unclear if preservation extends to combined caloric restriction and physical exertion. According to the "reticular-activating hypofrontality" model, vigorous exertion impairs prefrontal cortex activity and associated functions. This double-blind, placebo-controlled, crossover study examined cognitive function during sustained exertion while volunteers were calorically-deprived. Twenty-three volunteers were calorie-depleted for two days on one occasion and fully-fed on another. They completed intermittent bouts of exercise at 40-65% VO2peak while prefrontal cortex-dependent tasks of cognitive control, mood, and perceived exertion were assessed. Calorie deprivation impaired accuracy on the task-switching task of set-shifting (p < .01) and decreased sensitivity on the go/no-go task of response inhibition (p < .05). Calorie deprivation did not affect risk taking on the Rogers risk task. During exercise, calorie deprivation, particularly on day 2, increased perceived exertion (p < .05) and impaired mood states of tension, depression, anger, vigor, fatigue, and confusion (all p < .01). Physical exertion during severe calorie deprivation impairs cognitive control, mood, and self-rated exertion. Reallocation of cerebral metabolic resources from the prefrontal cortex to structures supporting movement may explain these deficits.

Keywords: Borg rating; Executive function; Military; Risk taking; Task-switching.

Publication types

  • Randomized Controlled Trial
  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.

MeSH terms

  • Affect*
  • Anger
  • Caloric Restriction / psychology*
  • Cognition*
  • Cross-Over Studies
  • Depression / psychology
  • Double-Blind Method
  • Energy Intake*
  • Exercise
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Mental Fatigue / psychology
  • Perception
  • Physical Exertion*
  • Self Report
  • Task Performance and Analysis
  • Young Adult