Can cognitive activities during breaks in repetitive manual work accelerate recovery from fatigue? A controlled experiment
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© 2014 Mathiassen et al. Neurophysiologic theory and some empirical evidence suggest that fatigue caused by physical work may be more effectively recovered during "diverting" periods of cognitive activity than during passive rest; a phenomenon of great interest in working life. We investigated the extent to which development and recovery of fatigue during repeated bouts of an occupationally relevant reaching task was influenced by the difficulty of a cognitive activity between these bouts. Eighteen male volunteers performed three experimental sessions, consisting of six 7-min bouts of reaching alternating with 3 minutes of a memory test differing in difficulty between sessions. Throughout each session, recordings were made of upper trapezius muscle activity using electromyography (EMG), heart rate and heart rate variability (HRV) using electrocardiography, arterial blood pressure, and perceived fatigue (Borg CR10 scale and SOFI). A test battery before, immediately after and 1 hour after the work period included measurements of maximal shoulder elevation strength (MVC), pressure pain threshold (PPT) over the trapezius muscles, and a submaximal isometric contraction. As expected, perceived fatigue and EMG amplitude increased during the physical work bouts. Recovery did occur between the bouts, but fatigue accumulated throughout the work period. Neither EMG changes nor recovery of perceived fatigue during breaks were influenced by cognitive task difficulty, while heart rate and HRV recovered the most during breaks with the most difficult task. Recovery of perceived fatigue after the 1 hour work period was also most pronounced for the most difficult cognitive condition, while MVC and PPT showed ambiguous patterns, and EMG recovered similarly after all three cognitive protocols. Thus, we could confirm that cognitive tasks bet ween bouts of fatiguing physical work can, indeed, accelerate recovery of some factors associated with fatigue, even if benefits may be moderate and some responses may be equivocal. Our results encourage further research into combinations of physical and mental tasks in an occupational context.
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