People undertaking prolonged vigorous exercise experience substantial bodily fluid losses due to thermoregulatory sweating. If these fluid losses are not replaced, endurance capacity may be impaired in association with a myriad of alterations in physiological function, including hyperthermia, hyperventilation, cardiovascular strain with reductions in brain, skeletal muscle and skin blood perfusion, greater reliance on muscle glycogen and cellular metabolism, alterations in neural activity and, in some conditions, compromised muscle metabolism and aerobic capacity. The physiological strain accompanying progressive exercise-induced dehydration to a level of ~ 4% of body mass loss can be attenuated or even prevented by: (1) ingesting fluids during exercise, (2) exercising in cold environments, and/or (3) working at intensities that require a small fraction of the overall body functional capacity. The impact of dehydration upon physiological function therefore depends on the functional demand evoked by exercise and environmental stress, as cardiac output, limb blood perfusion and muscle metabolism are stable or increase during small muscle mass exercise or resting conditions, but are impaired during whole-body moderate to intense exercise. Progressive dehydration is also associated with an accelerated drop in perfusion and oxygen supply to the human brain during submaximal and maximal endurance exercise. Yet their consequences on aerobic metabolism are greater in the exercising muscles because of the much smaller functional oxygen extraction reserve. This review describes how dehydration differentially impacts physiological function during exercise requiring low compared to high functional demand, with an emphasis on the responses of the human brain, heart and skeletal muscles.
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