When talking about strength and wellness, you don’t hear a lot about nerves. You might be told that heavy lifting “jacks up” your central nervous system, but you don’t hear much about how you can manipulate your autonomic nervous system to improve your daily wellbeing and your workout recovery.
But you can.
Why This Matters
We don’t want to bore you with an anatomy lecture, it’s important to just learn these two terms: the sympathetic nervous system and the parasympathetic nervous system.
Put simply, the sympathetic nervous system is the “fight or flight” arm of the nervous system and the parasympathetic is the “rest and digest” or “feed and breed” side. When we’re in a sympathetic state we’re stressed, ready for action. It’s a great state to be in when need some manic energy to work out or meet a deadline, but not so much during your day to day life.
It’s widely acknowledged that modern life has our system in a sympathetic, anxious, excited state way more often than it should be, which raises our risk of heart disease and cardiac mortality — we’re talking about chronic stress, after all. We should be spending the bulk of our time in a parasympathetic state, which is when the body is truly recovering and at ease.
“Stress is a necessity for optimal health and function, however acute and chronic stress differ,” says Joseph LaVacca, DPT, CFSC, FMT-C, SFMA, an orthopedic physical therapist based in New York City. “Chronic stress will decrease our response to cortisol having multiple impacts including increased inflammatory markers in the bloodstream.”
This is why it’s important to learn how to stimulate your vagus nerve, which activates the parasympathetic system. Sometimes this is done in clinical settings with electrical stimulation, as this can help treat depression and epilepsy. Here are some more low-tech ways you can do at home.