Good sleep and recovery are huge factors when it comes to getting and staying fit. More often than not I have found that people are generally under repaired, and under rested. Many gym-goers have this sense in their head that the more they workout, the harder the workout, the better their results will be.
To some extent this may be true in that consistently pushing the body past what you’ve done previously are the key to building muscle and progressing in your goals.
However what’s not often talked about is the role of the parasympathetic nervous system, or the importance of rest, recovery, and digestion.
Today we explore the benefits this system can provide you and how you can start to implement these strategies to get the most out of your workouts and nutrition.
What is the parasympathetic nervous system?
The parasympathetic nervous system, also referred to as PSNS, is the system that acts opposite our sympathetic nervous system. Many of us know the sympathetic nervous system to be the “fight or flight” system. As you may already know the SNS is responsible for exciting our neurons to fire quickly to make decisions.
The PSNS however is all about “rest and digest”. Some of the roles that the PSNS plays are the following:
Slows heart rate
Increases intestinal and gland activity
Relaxes sphincter muscles
Regulates sexual arousal
This system is like the laid back friend who always wants to sit around and relax. Not wanting to make any sudden movements which would elevate the heart rate. This system is necessary to balance out the hyperactivity of the sympathetic nervous system.
Think of these 2 systems as yin and yang, 2 opposing modalities that need to work together to find balance in our lives.
Why is this relevant right now?
Based on all the recent events of this pandemic, uncertainty and heightened stress are factors into why many people are falling off their normal fitness routine. Kids are home from school and are bored...parents are doing their best to maintain normalcy and stay positive through the unknown future for themselves as well as their kids.
Using our PSNS is now more important than ever to help balance out the craziness that is going on in the world around us.
Not only do we need this more than ever, but we need to learn how to do it and activate this system to reap its full benefits.
Think about it…
Do you find that it’s been harder to get to sleep on time, and to stay asleep?
Do you find that your mind is wandering all through the day and night - stressing about what the future holds?
Have you been stress eating and reaching for more snacks than usual?
If that’s the case then you might be constantly using your sympathetic nervous system..or your fight or flight response. Your body is trying to protect you from the stressors by keeping you alert and ready to act if something threatening enters your life.
Life threatening situations might not be on your horizon but your body still will react as if there is one up ahead. Our “primal brains” still operate as if there is a tiger chasing us...increasing heart rate, dilating pupils, sending blood to our extremities.
These are all factors that are simply not in our control once our body interpretes a threat to our lives. Right now for most of us, it’s all consumed by the pandemic and its impact on life. So our bodies react to this and continue to respond in this fight or flight response.
Stress eating is a response or a band aid to the constant arousal of the sympathetic nervous system. When stress is at a high point - our bodies crave foods that are high in fat, high in sugar and salt. High stress not only impacts the foods we reach for but also how the food will metabolize. Since the PSNS is responsible for digestion, you most likely won’t feel too great after eating a meal if you are eating with a heightened sense of stress.
How the PSNS can help you
So I think by now we can be in agreement that we need something to help us balance all of this craziness out.
We only need to support our PSNS system to allow it to do its job fully throughout your day. By supporting this and molding it into your normal everyday life you will be able to regain control over the overwhelming stress.
Just like a muscle, the more you practice and work on using this system the more readily available it becomes.
Now this system will turn on automatically without you consciously thinking about it. The nervous system works unconsciously and sends messages to your body to help regulate the things we spoke about above.
However there is a way that you can train your body to more completely and easily get into this space. This is all through PSNS work. Let’s go over some solid ways to help even out the hyperactivity of your normal day.
Actions to help the PSNS do its job
First and foremost, let’s talk about the power of meditation.
Yes meditation for some may sound like some pointless woo-woo but it is in fact a well documented and well received style of PSNS work.
Meditation puts the focus into the “rest” component of the PSNS system. Working on focusing on your breath while also feeling your body is an amazing way to get “outside” of your head and your stressful thoughts.
Meditation is a practice and is not something that can be done once and then forgotten about. It’s important to hone this skill and build those mental muscles to be able to meditate on a daily basis.
For example, one good way for you to start doing this today is to try and sit quietly to yourself for 1-5 minutes. That’s it….1-5 minutes of your day to sit quietly, breath deeply and breath freely.
Over time as you get more familiar with yourself and with the practice you can then begin to bump it up to 15 minutes, 20 minutes and so on.
This will allow your body to activate that PSNS system and begin the process of “rest and digest”.
Secondly, and one of my favorites, is to go on nature walks.
Nature walks are another great way to help set yourself into this PSNS system. There is something to be said about how our connection with nature goes beyond ourselves. We were “raised” in the woods, our ancestors came from nature and we have that within ourselves today.
A nature walk is a great way to help get you out of your head - in nature you have the ability to calm your nerves with some light walking and breathing. Walking around the neighborhood is great - but get on a trail between trees and bushes and you WILL feel the difference in your mood.
Lastly, taking time to be just silent can help activate this PSNS system. Remember this system is for “rest and digest” and silence is a great way to activate this.
Think about it...how often are you just simply silent? On a normal day you might have kids running up and down the house, spouses who are catching up at the end of the day, friends and family calling the house to check in on everyone.
All this noise and distraction in itself can be stress inducing for any normal person. Let alone during a time of uncertainty, this can mount and leave you feeling agitated and out of control.
Silence might be the answer here - and it’s so simple.
Go outside in the backyard and just take 10-15 minutes to just sit quietly and listen to the wind blow and the birds chirp. When you allow yourself to disconnect from all the “noise” you can finally begin the processes needed for you to gain the benefits of the PSNS.
How we can help you learn to activate the PSNS
Not everyone is comfortable attempting the above suggestions on their own. This is why we are releasing a new Master Class for Beginners in Meditation.
Starting on June 8th my beautiful co-owner and mindful extrandionaire Brittany will be running a program that lasts 4 weeks. In this program you will learn how to create balance in your life, regain control of your mood and find peace through this craziness.
She will be hosting classes at 7AM on Mondays and Friday’s for 30 minutes where you will be learning the process of meditation, go through a live class with Brittany and ultimately learn to use these skills on a daily basis.
Look out for our social media posts to learn how to sign up!