So which bits of you, do you associate with physical fitness?
I’m going take a guess that muscles and the cardiovascular system would be high up on your list, maybe joints as well? What about the nervous system, probably not?
Reframing the concept of physical fitness through the lens of the nervous system, and in particular the autonomic nervous system (ANS), may lead you to reappraise how you choose to exercise. Just like our diet needs to be balanced and varied, so too our choice of exercise. Doing just omphy exercise would be like just eating all the pies and none of the green stuff.
We go to the gym to make your muscles stronger, bigger, maybe more flexible. If those muscles were not connected to the nervous system, they would not function at all.
If you have been unlucky enough to have spent time in hospital laid up in bed for a prolonged period of time, with say a fractured leg, it would come as no surprise that your leg muscles would have wasted through lack of use. Interestingly, and what may surprise you is that the part of the brain that is responsible for firing up those muscles will have shrunk too. The nervous system and the muscular system are inextricably linked.
When I work in care homes in my capacity as a physiotherapist, many who have lost the functional movement to get out of their chair to stand, need as much input into reeducating their nervous system as they do strengthening their muscles.
When we get our trainers on, and go for a run we think cardiovascular system. However, what coordinates and controls the function of the old ticker and lungs? When we have a hot swollen joint what plays a large part in orchestrating the inflammatory response? If we have an injury, what system is responsible for processing and responding to the pain experience? If we are ill what is intimately connected to our immune response? You may have guessed…the nervous system.
Then of course there is the nervous system itself. There is an increasing incidence of neurodegenerative disease, with Alzheimer’s at the top of the list. It is thought that ageing of the nervous system is the initial trigger for neurological disease.
A fit, flexible and responsive nervous system might not look as sexy as a six pack, but boy does it pack a punch! The great news is that you can do something about it, by training the autonomic system.
The autonomic nervous system controls the things that are out of our conscious control, such as heart rate, breathing, digestion, circulation, temperature . The heart beats, the gut digests, it just just happens. A bit like when Donald Trump opens his mouth words come out, without a single thought!
There are essentially two parts to the ANS, the sympathetic and parasympathetic. The former is associated with our ‘fight or flight’ response, and the latter to the ‘rest and digest’ response. 'Omphy' exercise, like spinning classes, circuits, running, basically those exercises that involve sweat, breathlessness and grunt are associated more with the sympathetic part of the autonomic nervous system. Stress at work or home also fires up the sympathetic nervous system (SNS), which is interestingly twice as active when we are 60, compared to 25.
It’s fair to say the sympathetic part of the ANS gets enough of a look in, in our hectic 21st century lifestyles. Indeed, there is growing evidence to suggest that many disease states are accompanied by chronic elevations in sympathetic nerve activity.
We may notice subtle little signs that our SNS is overactive and PNS underactive :-
More aches and pains especially in the morning, due to increased levels of inflammation.
Poor quality of sleep, not feeling refreshed in the morning.
More tired when you get in after work.
More sensitive to pain, and increased susceptibility to injury!
Doing things that you have always found easy are now more of a challenge.
I guess the six million dollar question is what exercise do we do to bring on line the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS) to a maintain and restore balance?
Sitting and relaxing in front of the TV with a glass of wine is not actively stimulating the PNS. Just as omphy exercise stimulates the SNS we need to do something proactive to stimulate the PNS. Lying still in a yin yoga class, breathing in a specific way, or moving slowly in a tai chi class is a great way of doing this. “Less is the new more”. Ironically, when we strengthen the PNS then our aerobic capacity increases too. So a win win situation, when we bring balance into our choice of exercise.