Anyone that has even a cursory interest in exercise science, including weekend warriors who want little more than beach abs, knows that the nervous system is an important aspect of training. Sure, the muscles might be what we are ultimately interested in, but it’s your nerves, spine, and brain that control your physical performance. Training your nervous system can make or break your results, whether in the gym or in competition. Exercising also helps your brain. One of the first things people notice when they first start exercising is an improvement in their mood and their resistance to stress at work.
The big problem when it comes to the nervous system and exercise is that few people know much about it. In fact, it’s a burgeoning field in both neurology and exercise science that is finally getting respect in the research realm. Recently, the North American Association for the Study of Obesity (NAASO) published online for the first time its article describing a live workshop called “The Neurobiology of Exercise” in which twenty-three researchers weighed in on this oh-so-important topic. Here are a few highlights from their consensus:
- Improves brain health, including both structure and function.
- Improves the connections between your nerves. This, in part, defines skill development in any sport.
- Helps your brain grow, and supports the protections of your neurons (nerve cells).
- Increases your ability to learn and adapt to change.
- Can help reduce the negative effects of brain injury.
- Reduces negative behaviors resulting from sudden stress.
- Increases the brain’s ability to protect itself from physical stressors like heat and inflammation.
- Increases brain metabolism.
- Reduces depression.
- Reduces the effects of aging on the brain.
It works both ways too. Exercise helps your nervous system and your nervous system has everything to do with your performance. Whether it’s coordinating your skill, learning what works and what doesn’t, and motivating you to get in the door and work out, your brain dominates your performance from every angle, but that’s not all.
The human brain possesses a unique ability that other animals lack: willpower. We have evolved the cognitive ability to override the systems of the body designed to prevent us from pushing ourselves further and further, especially during locomotion (specifically when running and walking long distances). It’s no wonder that human beings have some of the greatest endurance of all land animals, in no small part because of our ability to will ourselves to continue on in the face of fatigue and even pain. When another animal’s brain forces it to yield, ours can tell us to persist.
Looking forward, we will begin seeing more and more workouts tailored to facilitating the function of the nervous system to push human strength and endurance to never-before-seen heights. Public health could be improved overall as well. The growing research in the field of neurobiology and exercise science can be used to make us all healthier, stronger, and even smarter by the promotion of scientifically proven public health initiatives.
Rod Dishman, et al., “Neurobiology of Exercise,” Obesity, 14:3 (2006)
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