We all know exercise is great for your body. It’s also one of the best things we can do for our brains (see our Exercise and the Brain series of posts), exercise also benefits the nervous system! The nervous system is like an internal instant messaging service. It sends and receives messages from our brain to our bodies, and vice versa. These messages can come from the outside world (e.g., you recoil after touching a hot stove) or from inside your body (e.g., if you stretch too far, it hurts).
These messages can be relayed across your entire body in amazing ways. For example, it has been shown that if you work grip strength (by squeezing a stress ball) in your right hand, your left hand will also get stronger as well–even if your left hand never touches the stress ball! The nervous system is responsible for this phenomenon. It creates a map detailing the most efficient ways to move. Let’s take a look at a few of the fascinating ways exercise benefits the nervous system.
Fight or Flight Response Regulation
When we are stressed, the body automatically gets itself ready to fight or run (the “fight or flight” response of the sympathetic nervous system). Heart rate increases, our muscles receive more blood, and our breathing quickens to bring in more oxygen and fuel to move. Unfortunately, most of the things that stress us out do not require us to actually fight or run. All that built-up energy has nowhere to go, and it can feel stuck in the body. Exercise can allow that pent-up energy a healthy release. Once the body “blows off steam,” it can more fully relax. However, be cautious, as certain kinds of exercise can actually increase the sympathetic nervous system response. Make sure to let your trainer know if you are feeling extra stress so they can guide you through a workout that will calm your sympathetic nervous system.
This is our ability to control our neurological impulses and select behaviors more in line with our long-term goals. Self control is an important piece of inhibitory control. For example, successfully resisting that unnecessary second piece of cake (the first piece was obviously necessary). Exercise enhances our inhibitory control.
Preventing and Treating Neurological Disorders
Disorders of the nervous system include ADHD, addiction, migraine and tension headaches, Alzhimer’s, Parkinson’s, brain tumors, epilepsy, stroke, seizures, and brain tumors. Exercise improves your chances to avoid these disorders. If you already have one or more of these disorders, your doctor may suggest exercise to help control them. It is particularly helpful as an adjunct therapy for neurological degenerative disorders, such as Alzhimer’s and Parkinson’s disease.
Neuroplasticity is the ability of neural networks to adapt and change. It allows us to adapt to new stimuli, such as a new skill or a new exercise routine. Much like a muscle, the more we practice the better we get. Essentially, exercise makes our nervous system better at learning!
It was once thought that adults could not grow new neurons (brain cells). We now know that this is untrue. Exercise encourages brain-derived neurotrophic factor and insulin-like growth factor 1 which increases the amount of newborn neurons created. New neurons play a huge role in promoting learning, improved memory, reduced stress, and regulating emotions, and it even aids the body’s response to injury. When the nervous system is regularly being enhanced with exercise, we heal faster.
How can we best exercise to harness the power of our amazing nervous system?
Try new kinds of exercises! This will challenge your nervous system to automate a new set of movements, which stimulates neuron growth. Also, make sure to spend ample time warming up, and cooling down. The warm up is critical for the nervous system to wake up and turn on. Your trainer carefully designs the warm up to mimic the movement patterns you will use in your workout but with less weight and speed. This way your brain and nervous system are prepared for what is ahead, which will make your workout more efficient and reduce the risk of injury. If you are feeling stressed, spend extra time in the cool-down portion of your workout. This will give your sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) a clear message that you are safe and it is okay to calm down and relax.
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Caudate nucleus – responsible for stimulus-response learning and inhibitory control; implicated in Parkinson’s disease and ADHD
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