Julie Carlisle is the latest addition to Agoge Fitness Systems. She teaches the evening Strength Class on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 6 pm. Julie has an extensive fitness and training background and serves as a professor of anatomy at Jefferson State.
I’m staring at the floor, 15 inches from my nose, accounting for every speck of dirt, pebble, dog hair, and other unrecognizable bits. As I breathe fully, I struggle to keep my core active and my hips in line with my spine. Squeezing my shoulder blades together and sliding them towards my spine results in more stability, but also “troll blood” leaking down my arms, elbows, and ultimately to my wrists. My body is in plank position, and I’m struggling to remain still, stable, and pleasant. My arms involuntarily shake as if they are frightened of gravity. My breathing becomes sporadic and my eyebrows knit together. Every muscle in my body tenses up with furious effort. And, then, almost without warning and certainly no consultation with my brain, my body collapses to the ground. I am a mess of sweat, carbon dioxide, and relief on the floor. Release.
We all know and love plank position and its many varieties. As it addresses full-body stability and isometric strength, the plank is a valuable illustration of tension and release, or the yin and yang of our autonomic nervous system. Our body constantly monitors all physiological aspects of life- blood pressure, body temperature, heart rate, hydration levels, electrolyte levels in the blood- to maintain them within a normal range. Maintaining this normal range, or homeostasis, is our bodies’ ability to keep it all together and run smoothly, a happy medium, if you will, of all physiological processes. The hypothalamus, an upside-down volcano- like structure in the center of the brain, oversees homeostasis through feedback mechanisms. It uses two main avenues- the endocrine system, involving slow -acting and mess -making hormones, and the autonomic nervous system, a quick and sensitive approach using electrical nerve signals.
Figure 1. Midsagital view of human brain. The hypothalamus directs the endocrine and autonomic nervous systems from its position superior and slightly anterior to the brain stem. The pituitary gland, inferior to the hypothalamus, is the endocrine system’s master gland that uses hormones to direct the activity of other glands around the body. While the hypothalamus is the boss, the pituitary is a big bag of hormones.
The autonomic nervous system targets our involuntary organs such as glands (ever try to stop sweating or crying or salivating in a high pressure situation like a date or interview?), cardiac muscle of the heart, and smooth muscle composing the walls of blood vessels and hollow organs of the respiratory, digestive, urinary, and reproductive systems. This division of the nervous system can regulate our heart rates, digestive functions, and blood flow by employing two main branches- the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems, which direct tension and release, respectively.
The sympathetic system creates tension in the body as it facilitates our “fight or flight” alert system, which includes “E” activities of excitement, embarrassment, exercise, and emergency. Although you won’t literally die of embarrassment or exercise, it may very well feel like it. The sympathetic division governs your special survival activities- either you are going into combat with a foe, or you are fleeing. Speed and strength are the ultimate goal. Our primitive bodies have not quite caught up to our level of civilization, and so we still react to perceived threats (bad traffic, bosses, bungee jumping, personal trainers) even though our survival is not at stake. Our heart rates, respiration rates, and blood pressure all skyrocket to facilitate our survival. Under sympathetic influence, our energy systems are depleted so that we may be the strongest, fastest individual to survive. Or else.
On the flip side, the parasympathetic system creates peace and relaxation in the “rest and digest” mode. “Repair” should be included in the description, as our bodies recover from emotionally draining experiences or exercise-induced muscle damage. Without recovery, we cannot rebuild muscle and bone into stronger, faster, better tissue. The parasympathetic system is our “wine and dine” service that covers the 3 “D’s”- digestion, diuresis, defecation. We are safe, calm, and our bodies are free to extract energy and rid the waste in an overall effort to conserve energy. Blood flows freely all over the body, rather than targeting the muscles, so we are peaceful, warm, happy, and attractive. As the “feed and breed” division, the parasympathetic system facilitates libido. Our heart rate, blood pressure, and respiration rates remain conservative, in a low to normal range. In a safe place, there’s no reason to ramp up the cardiovascular machine.
Although the sympathetic and parasympathetic divisions exert opposing effects on the same targets, they are not mutually exclusive. Like the yin and yang, sun and moon, fire and water, they complement each other. In fact, they necessitate each other. The sympathetic system remains slightly active to provide just enough blood pressure to deliver blood efficiently. The background activation of the parasympathetic system keeps the digestive and urinary systems active and ready. Because, who knows when you might run into something yummy, like a buffet?
So what does all this information mean for the everyday Mental Meathead? Awareness. When I sweat and stare at a heavy kettle bell overhead and slide down into a windmill, invoking stressful sympathetic conditions, I am reminded to breathe and remain calm. When a rapid burst of kettle bell snatches provokes a wicked thumping in my chest, I can recognize the option to maintain the intensity or slow down. Or, if my kettle bell swings elicit nary a bead of sweat, then perhaps I should stop fooling myself and get to work. And, importantly, recognizing that tension needs release, and heavily lifting complements flexibility work, and screams necessitate a sigh, perhaps we all may find a renewed respect for the intelligence of the human body.