Over the last seventeen years in the fitness business from my start as a Personal Trainer to currently owner of CrossFit West Houston, I have learned a lot about movement, nutrition health and the human body. Daily I am amazed at how the human body can perform and how it functions inside and out. It is an incredible machine. One of the things that I have been geeking out about lately is the Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) and how it relates to exercise, stress, performance and overall health.
What is ANS?
The Autonomic Nervous System deals with our involuntary responses through hour smooth muscle such as the heart and internal organs. These are the processes that we do not have to think about. It is the epicenter of how our body reacts to stress and the response to the stress or threat. After the stress or threat has passed, the ANS will help us recover as well. This is beautifully designed to bring us back in balance.
It is divided into two different parts the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the Parasympathetic Nervous System (PNS). The SNS is our “fight or flight” response, while the PNS is our “rest and digest”.
How does it work?
You are walking alone at night. Suddenly a man, who means to do you harm, comes after you. Good news, first you are a member at CFWH so you are in shape. Second, your SNS kicks in. There are two choices stay and fight or run away. The SNS will increase your heart rate, give you a shot of adrenalin, put processes like digestion, rest and recovery on hold so that you can deal with the threat.
Afterwards your attacker is either lying in a pool of his own blood and vomit because of the butt whopping you put on him or you have found safety do to your breakaway speed, power and endurance. Either way the threat is past and you are safe. It is time for the PNS to take over. The PNS will return your heart rate back to normal, digestion of your RX bar will resume and you will be able to go home rest and be ready to crush tomorrow’s WOD.
The rub is that this scenario is more indicative of the type of stress early man experienced. Early man experienced stresses such as these:
Their stress was typically short term. They spent much more time in “rest and digest” than “fight or flight”.
Modern man suffers some of the same as above with the addition of longer lasting low level types of stress or threats:
The Autonomic Nervous System’s is designed to keep us alive by being emergency response system. However over use of this system will lead to wear and tear on the body and eventually sickness such as:
The very thing that is designed to protect us can kill us. It is the classic case of too much of a good thing, leading to chronic inflammation and finally sickness.
What to do?
The single best thing to do is find ways to engage the parasympathetic nervous system. There are a number of activities that can help:
This is easier said than done for sure. In the hustle and bustle of the modern world, we do not like to be alone with our thoughts. Trying to sit down quietly will quickly make our minds wonder to ” to do lists”, problems and deadlines.
Go for a guided type mediation either through and app like Calm which will take you through a 1 to 10 minute mediation . Or take a yoga class like the Mobility Fusion class which meets on Wed and Sat at 10:45.
Or you can simply box breath for a few minutes. Box breathing is accomplished like so.
This is also a great way to prepare for wod, post wod heart rate recovery, prior to a presentation at work, to calm you while under a deadline, etc.
I can’t imagine that anybody has ever said “that massage was the most stressful thing ever.” It just doesn’t happen. More often than not you feel like melted butter. If you have a spouse or significant other you can help each other out by trading massages. It will help you relax and perhaps even improve your relationship which could be the cause of stress. If you don’t have a spouse or significant other use a good firm foam roller, lacrosse ball or pvc pipe to give yourself a massage.
Learning to breathe, through rest and stress (including exercise) is one of the most important things to learn. Take a moment to assess how you are breathing right now while reading this article. Is your belly expanding while you breathe or is your chest? Are you breathing through your mouth or nose? Ideally you will breathe through your nose while your belly expands and contracts. This is the breathing of “rest and digest”. Look at a baby while it is sleeping, not a care in the world, belly breathing like a boss. See Video below:
Check yourself while exercising are you panting and distressed or calm and collected? You can control you heart rate while exercise by breathing correctly, breathe with your diaphragm not your chest. Too often during the WOD I will see folks with a look of panic and pain on their face while their chest heaves up and down. This will sky rocket your heart rate and engage the SNS. Try to be as calm as a hindu cow, breathe through your nose while expanding your belly. You will be more calm and controlled. Lastly keep a passive face even under stressful situations.
Even in a modern world despite all the things we have going on we can find ways to minimize harmful stress. You owe it to your long term health and wellness to find more ways to manage the stress that you find yourself under. Find more ways to “rest and digest” you will be much better for it!
April 25, 2016 at 3:37 pm -
Great post Roberto! Very few folks are educating their athletes about the autonomic nervous system and its powers AND detriments. We need to learn how to balance our sympathetic and para-sympathetic. Too much stress is harmful but no stress at all isn’t good either. I really enjoy box breathing WHILE taking cold showers. Killing two birds with one stone!
April 26, 2016 at 8:30 am -