While it is common for many people to engage in exercises that are challenging and physically demanding, high-intensity exercises can often be very exhausting on the sympathetic nervous system. For those who are suffering from chronic stress or overtraining, the sympathetic nervous system may need to rest in order for you to remain healthy, and exercises that emphasize the parasympathetic nervous system can be significantly beneficial in order to optimally recover.
Few types of exercise can compare in effects on the parasympathetic nervous system than yoga. Unlike most forms of exercise, yoga is not physically demanding, and is often perceived to be very relaxing. According to research in the "Journal of Affective Disorders" in 2006, regular engagement in a yoga regimen causes significant decreases in stress hormones, such as cortisol, and has an overall positive effect on your parasympathetic nervous system.
Along with yoga, another activity that can benefit your parasympathetic nervous system is deep breathing. In fact, in his book "The Most Effective Ways to Live Longer," Jonny Bowden, Ph.D., CNS, a board-certified nutritionist and the author of seven books on health and nutrition, recommends practicing deep breathing on a daily basis in order to benefit from the effects on the parasympathetic nervous system. The reason that deep breathing is so effective is that during times of stress, heart rate and respiration rapidly increase as the sympathetic nervous system takes over. Deep breathing helps convince the body there is no immediate danger and allows the parasympathetic nervous system to regain control. Bowden recommends alternating between breathing in for a count of two seconds, holding your breath for six seconds and then releasing the breath over the course of seven seconds.
Another activity that can benefit the parasympathetic nervous system is meditation. Unlike deep breathing, which focuses on the rate at which you are taking breaths, meditation focuses on clearing your mind of all thoughts or feelings for a short period of time. Research in both the "Journal of Behavioral Medicine" in 1985 and the journal "Psychosomatic Medicine" in 2003 has shown that meditation has profound stress-relieving abilities and can be very effective at improving the parasympathetic nervous system. In fact, those who were exceptionally skilled at clearing their mind and becoming immersed in meditation were actually shown to have brain wave frequencies similar to those found during deep sleep. Clearly, meditation can be a very effective method for relieving stress and improving your parasympathetic nervous system.
One other type of exercise that can surprisingly have beneficial effects on the parasympathetic nervous system is light jogging. While most forms running are done with high intensity and will typically tax the sympathetic nervous system, research in the journals "Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise" and "Clinical and Experimental Hypertension" in 2001 and 2000, respectively, has shown that light jogging leads to positive adaptations in the parasympathetic nervous system. While increasing intensity typically does lead to greater results in terms of overall cardiovascular fitness, for those who are suffering from chronic stress or overtraining and need to get their parasympathetic nervous system intact, low-intensity jogs may be beneficial.
- “Journal of Affective Disorders”; Antidepressant Efficacy and Hormonal Effects of Sudarshana Kriya Yoga (SKY) in Alcohol Dependent Individuals; B.N. Gangadhar, et al.; 2006
- Most Effective Ways to Live Longer; Jonny Bowden; 2010
- “Journal of Behavioral Medicine”; The Clinical Use of Mindfulness Meditation for the Self-Regulation of Chronic Pain; J. Kabat-Zinn, et al.; 1985
- “Psychosomatic Medicine”; Alterations in Brain and Immune Function Produced by Mindfulness Meditation; R.J. Davidson, et al.; 2003
- “Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise”; Exercise Training and Autonomic Nervous System Activity in Obese Individuals; M. Amano, et al.; 2001
- “Clinical and Experimental Hypertension”; Daily Exercise Attenuated the Sympathetic Component of the Spontaneous Arterial Baroreflex Control of Heart Rate in Hypertensive Rats; H.L. Collins, et al.; 2000