Unraveling the Balance: Sympathetic and Parasympathetic Nervous Systems in Exercise

Oct 5, 2023 | Blog | 0 comments

Empower Your Inner Calm Amidst the Workout Storm

Are you ready to explore the intricate dance between your body and mind during exercise? We’re about to dive deep into the world of the autonomic nervous system, specifically the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, and how they’re stimulated during physical activity. Moreover, we’ll uncover the evidence-backed strategies to strike the perfect balance between these two systems for optimal health and well-being.

When I went through chronic exhaustion for two years I had to reduce, change and greatly modify the way I approached exercise. 

Why? Because even though I was literally burned out yet wanted to continue exercising to stay healthy and toned, my recovery was terrible. So bad that I would need to sleep for hours after participating in a regular 30 or 45 minute gym class or workout. My body was always sore, I constantly felt depleted, I constantly got sick.

So at this point I became very curious as to the effects that all these exercise styles had on my body.

I knew that pushing really heavy weights and doing heaps of HIIT style classes would send me into a fatigue bout and energy crash for hours and sometimes days after. Yet a Pilates-based routine left me feeling like I had some energy to spare even in the worst of my fatigue. 

I learned to listen to my body and get to a place where I had a healthy balance of exercise for where I was at, then built it back gradually from there.

I hope this can help you if you are going through this or are coming back to a healthy and balanced state. Or even in the past if you have gone through it’s good to know exactly what you were dealing with on that level!

Understanding the Nervous Systems

Before we venture into the realms of exercise, let’s lay the foundation by understanding the two key players: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems.

1. The Sympathetic Nervous System

The sympathetic nervous system (SNS), often referred to as the “fight or flight” system, is your body’s rapid response system to stress and danger. When activated, it prepares your body for action by increasing heart rate, dilating airways, and directing blood flow away from non-essential functions like digestion and towards your muscles.

2. The Parasympathetic Nervous System

In contrast, the parasympathetic nervous system (PNS), known as the “rest and digest” system, is responsible for conserving energy and promoting relaxation. It slows the heart rate, constricts airways, and stimulates digestion.

Stimulation During Exercise

Now that we have a grasp of these two systems, let’s explore how they come into play during exercise:

1. Sympathetic Nervous System Activation

a. Cardiovascular Response: When you engage in intense physical activity, such as high-intensity interval training (HIIT) or sprinting, your body perceives it as a “fight or flight” situation. The SNS kicks in, increasing your heart rate and pumping more blood to your muscles to meet the increased demand for oxygen and energy.

b. Stress Hormones: The SNS also triggers the release of stress hormones, primarily adrenaline and noradrenaline. These hormones provide a surge of energy, enhancing physical performance.

c. Pupil Dilation: Your pupils may dilate to improve vision and alertness, a classic “fight or flight” response.

2. Parasympathetic Nervous System Activation

a. Recovery and Relaxation: As your exercise session winds down, the PNS takes over. It promotes recovery by slowing your heart rate and helping your body return to a state of rest and relaxation.

b. Digestion: The PNS enhances digestive functions, allowing your body to absorb nutrients and repair muscle tissue.

Evidence of Sympathetic Overdrive

While both the SNS and PNS are crucial for survival and maintaining homeostasis, chronic stress and overactivation of the sympathetic nervous system can have detrimental effects on your health. Here’s the evidence:

1. Chronic Stress and the Sympathetic Nervous System

a. Hormonal Imbalance: Prolonged stress can lead to hormonal imbalances, including elevated cortisol levels. This can result in weight gain, sleep disturbances, and mood disorders.

b. Cardiovascular Risks: Overactivation of the SNS is associated with an increased risk of cardiovascular issues, including hypertension and heart disease.

c. Immune Suppression: Chronic stress weakens the immune system, making you more susceptible to illness.

d. Digestive Problems: An overactive SNS can hinder digestion, leading to issues like irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) and acid reflux.

e. Mental Health Impact: Chronic stress is a significant factor in the development of mental health disorders such as anxiety and depression.

2. The Burnout Epidemic

Statistics reveal the extent of the burnout epidemic and its connection to sympathetic overdrive:

  • According to the World Health Organization (WHO), burnout is now recognized as a legitimate medical diagnosis.
  • The American Institute of Stress reports that 83% of workers in the United States suffer from work-related stress.
  • A study published in the Journal of Occupational Health Psychology (2017) found that chronic job stress is associated with an increased risk of burnout.

Balancing Act: How to Avoid Sympathetic Overdrive

Now that we’ve explored the evidence of sympathetic overdrive, let’s uncover strategies to strike the ideal balance between the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems during and after exercise:

1. Mindful Movement

Incorporate mindful practices such as yoga, tai chi, or qigong into your routine. These activities emphasize slow, controlled movements and deep breathing, promoting parasympathetic activation.

2. Progressive Relaxation

After intense exercise, engage in progressive muscle relaxation techniques. These methods involve consciously relaxing each muscle group, promoting a shift towards parasympathetic dominance.

3. Breath Control

Practice controlled breathing exercises like diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing). Deep, rhythmic breaths activate the PNS and reduce stress.

4. Recovery Rituals

Implement post-exercise recovery rituals like foam rolling, stretching, or meditation. These activities promote relaxation and muscle repair.

5. Sleep Hygiene

Prioritize sleep hygiene to ensure you get sufficient restorative sleep. Sleep is a potent promoter of parasympathetic activity.

6. Stress Management

Incorporate stress management techniques such as mindfulness meditation, journaling, or counseling to address chronic stressors.

7. Balanced Exercise

Strive for a balanced exercise routine that includes both high-intensity workouts and restorative activities. Avoid excessive high-intensity exercise without adequate recovery.

Conclusion: The Harmonious Nervous System Symphony

In the intricate symphony of your body’s autonomic nervous system, achieving balance is the key to vitality and well-being. Exercise has the power to stimulate both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, but with mindfulness and conscious effort, you can ensure that you don’t stay in the sympathetic overdrive mode for too long.

Remember, you have the tools to conduct this symphony and harmonize your body and mind for a life filled with vigor, resilience, and inner calm.

Here’s a breakdown of the differences between various exercise modalities (I picked HIIT, weights, Pilates, walking, however there are way more we can compare!) in terms of their impact on the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems:

Exercise ModalityParasympathetic ActivitySympathetic Activity
High-Intensity Interval Training (HIIT)– HIIT primarily activates the sympathetic nervous system (SNS).– Increases heart rate and blood pressure significantly due to the intense bursts of effort.
– The SNS response is triggered by the high-intensity intervals and perceived “stress” of the workout.– Promotes the release of stress hormones like adrenaline and noradrenaline.
– Post-HIIT, there is typically a rapid shift towards parasympathetic activation during the recovery phase.– The post-exercise parasympathetic response helps with recovery and restoration.
Weight Training– Weight training moderately activates both the parasympathetic and sympathetic systems.– Initially raises heart rate and blood pressure during sets, but not to the same extent as HIIT.
– The combined activation supports strength development and muscle growth.– May also stimulate the release of stress hormones to a lesser degree than HIIT.
– Post-weight training, there’s a gradual transition toward parasympathetic dominance for muscle repair and recovery.– Encourages the body to repair and build muscle tissue during rest periods.
Pilates– Pilates emphasizes controlled movements and conscious breathing, promoting parasympathetic activation.– Heart rate and blood pressure remain relatively stable during Pilates sessions.
– Deep, mindful breathing encourages relaxation and reduces stress.– The SNS is minimally activated due to the low-intensity nature of Pilates.
– Pilates is especially effective in promoting parasympathetic activity, making it suitable for stress reduction and core strength development.– It supports posture, flexibility, and balance without the intense stress response of HIIT.
Walking– Walking, especially at a moderate pace, stimulates the parasympathetic system.– Heart rate and blood pressure increase slightly during brisk walking.
– The rhythmic motion and relaxed nature of walking encourage a calm, meditative state.– The sympathetic response during walking is mild compared to HIIT.
– Walking is an excellent activity for promoting relaxation, stress reduction, and overall well-being.– After a walk, the body gradually shifts towards parasympathetic dominance for recovery.

Note: The level of parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous system activity can vary among individuals based on fitness levels, intensity, and duration of exercise, as well as individual stress responses. It’s important to choose exercise modalities that align with your fitness goals and stress management needs.

Always listen to your body and consult with a healthcare provider if you have specific health concerns or conditions.

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References:

Exploring the Science of Muscle Recovery – NASM

An Evidence-Based Approach for Choosing Post-exercise Recovery Techniques to Reduce Markers of Muscle Damage, Soreness, Fatigue, and Inflammation: A Systematic Review With Meta-Analysis – PubMed (nih.gov)

Efficacy of Exercise Therapy in Persons with Burnout. A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis – PubMed (nih.gov)

Exercise and the autonomic nervous system – ScienceDirect

The Mental Benefits of Pilates? Less Stress, More Control (pilatesdigest.com)

Power To Your Core,

Vanessa Bartlett  xx

(Vanessa B Health)

Holistic Online Personal Trainer, Burnout Recovery Personal Trainer, Pilates Instructor & Lifestyle Coach 

Top 15 Finalist Australian Women’s Business Awards

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