Exercising at high altitude and in other environments where there are low oxygen levels can impair judgement, a new study has suggested.

When lower amounts of oxygen are carried around the body, the parts of the brain which are responsible for less critical functions are at risk of a reduced oxygen supply. This can affect the brain’s ability to sustain normal activities, including co-ordination and decision-making.

Researchers at the University of Tsukuba in Japan say that maintaining oxygen saturation during physically demanding activities such as mountaineering could prevent this reduction in neural activity, which can make the difference between life and death.

Describing the findings, senior author Professor Hideaki Soya said: “We compared the effects of hypoxic conditions in which blood oxygen levels is reduced with those in which blood oxygen levels remains stable during exercise. By doing this, we isolated low oxygen saturation as a factor for decreased neural activity and decreased performance.”

The team say this ‘cognitive fatigue’ must be factored in when planning physical activities that rely on judgement and decision-making that will be undertaken at high altitude or in low-oxygen situations.

Read the full study in the journal Scientific Reports.

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