Exercise and the Autonomic Nervous System

For some people in university, their favorite class was the nervous system. I can’t say that I was one of those people. I learned what I needed to learn and moved onto the next class. The class that I loved was the anatomy class that focused on bones and muscles.

After the interview with Elliott Hulse on thinking beyond the physical, it got me thinking about the nervous system a little more when it comes to injuries.

As usually, when I start thinking about injuries, I head over to the research to see what it has to say on the topic. I was not expecting to find very much on exercise and the autonomic nervous. To my surprise, there was a lot of great research on the topic.

Before I go into the research, let me bring Elliot back in here to explain the autonomic nervous system.

What Does the Autonomic Nervous System Do?

Brazilian Paper on ANS and Exercise

I could summarize the paper but let me take some key excerpts from the paper instead:

“The data of this review suggest that the beneficial effects of physical activity may be due, at least in part, to reductions in sympathetic nervous system activity. Conversely, with the recent association with physical inactivity and chronic disease, these data may also suggest that increased sympathetic nervous system activity contributes to the increased incidence of cardiovascular diseases associated with a sedentary lifestyle.”

“Sympathetic overactivity is common in many cardiovascular disease states and is related to a higher incidence of morbidity and mortality. Reductions in sympathetic outflow, whether at rest or during conditions that produce sympathoexcitation, may occur following exercise training. Alterations in the cardiovascular regions of the brain stem and other regions that are influenced by the levels of physical activity are likely to play a role in long-term cardiovascular health. Future studies will be important to further identify the central mechanisms involved in physical activity-dependent changes in the control of sympathetic nervous system activity.”

 Let me quickly summarize what they suggest:

  • Exercise helps decrease sympathetic outflow
  • An increase in sympathetic nervous system activity increases the risk of cardiovascular disease
  • Higher sympathetic activity relates to higher incidence of morbidity and mortality
This is really interesting stuff.  I never thought about the link of an increase in sympathetic nervous system and the increase risk of chronic conditions and the slow down of recovery from other injuries.

Where to get more information: Martins-Pinge MC. (2011). Cardiovascular and autonomic modulation by the central nervous system after aerobic exercise training. Braz J Med Biol Res. 2011 Sep;44(9):848-54. Epub 2011 Aug 19.

Lets go to one more research paper.

Exercise is Good For Turning Down the Activity of the Autonomic Nervous System

Let me go through the key highlights of the paper:

  • Sympathetic nervous system overactivity is seen in hypertension and heart failure which are examples of cardiovascular disease.
  •  Exercise has been shown to reduce hypertension and sympathetic nervous system activity.
  • Exercise reduces resting blood pressure and sympathetic outflow.
  • Exercise changes the central nervous system plasticity  which leads to an alteration of the regulation of sympathetic nervous system.

Very interesting stuff.  I know cardiovascular fitness has been getting bashed of late in the fat loss world but there are other benefits to it, other than just losing fat.

For more information: Mueller PJ. (2007). Exercise training and sympathetic nervous system activity: evidence for physical activity dependent neural plasticity. Clin Exp Pharmacol Physiol. 2007 Apr;34(4):377-84.

Spontaneous Movement in order to Balance out the Autonomic Nervous System

I got a great example for you on spontaneous exercise.

Even if you don’t care about this stuff (exercise and autonomic nervous system), I know this is going to put a smile on your face.

I was at my 4 year old son’s preschool party day, yesterday. This is when the kids sing a few songs for the parents. My son got into the song and then broke out into an impromptu dance solo (30 second mark of the video). I hurt my face from laughing and smiling so much.   Have a watch:

I can not take credit for this dance moves, I think he gets them from my wife.

Looking at the article above, I think the video of my son sums it up well.  If you want to have a balanced life, get moving, dance a little and smile a lot.  Your autonomic nervous system will be happy and so will the rest of your body.

Exercises to Decrease Sympathetic Activity

If you are looking for exercises that decrease sympathetic activity, check out Anabolic Energizers.

This is a little workout that Elliott Hulse put together.  I have been doing them during the week especially when I have been feeling stress.  If might be something that will help you or your clients out.

That is it.

Take care and have a great day.

Rick Kaselj, MS