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Autonomic Balance Means Chill The F Out

Do you even rest? That was the initial title for this blog before I googled it and realized it was taken over by an outdated fad involving the addition of ...,bro? at the commencement of just about any line you can think of. Do you even lift, bro? Do you even stretch, bro? You get the idea.

This blog is inspired by an experience I recently had while returning from a workout. I could feel my ribs wanting to punish me for the cardio I forced myself to do and therefore decided it would be a good time to not cool down and rest but to start reading through manuals of courses I had taken in years prior in order to have a renewed vigor for understanding exactly why and what was happening. Sure enough, the sensation of pressure and inability to completely exhale swelled on me until I slammed the manual I was reading shut and threw a very short temper tantrum. Being the youngest of four, I have no shame in losing my temper in private as I used to blow up on my poor mother in Hannafords weekly as a toddler, I have come a long way. Anyways, I came to the conclusion as I calmed down that I am probably not the best at chilling out. Or as most athletic trainers, strength coaches, and PT's would describe, I am not the best at resting.

What does it mean to rest? It means that you down regulate your sympathetic nervous system (fight or flight) and up-regulate your parasympathetic system (rest and digest). This is a chemical and neurologic process that occurs throughout your entire body. We often think of nerves being in our brain to make us think, in our muscles to make us move, and in our skin to make us feel. However, nerves have unimaginably complex responsibility throughout every centimeter of our being, especially our ability to relax systemically.

So what does it matter if you can relax?

Coming into this question I am truly regretting the toddler story, as this might end up being more of an essay than a blog.

Rest is the key component to physical activity that allows for sustained increase and maintenance of athletic improvement. For instance, if you train biceps every single day for a year. You will not have a noticeable difference in strength, hypertrophy, or capacity between March and October (vague example, not to be taken literally). The basic concept of "overreaching" essentially states that if you do too much, without allowing your body to heal and adapt, you will eventually not continue to improve. "Overtraining" on the other hand (much more likely if your are training one muscle 365 days in a row) can result in massive declines in performance, immune function, general health (to be taken literally). If health and performance are important to you, than so is rest.

Rest is essential for optimal digestive function. If you are training your muscles to be able to handle heavier loads, faster twitches (movements), greater ranges of motion, or longer duration of activity, then you are stressing your body. Stress is composed of muscle breakdown, tearing, and potential injuries that only respond to an appropriate level of reduction in stress and increase in regeneration, also known as rest.

Thus far, we have described rest on a very superficial level. Your muscle breaks down, you rest it, it grows back stronger. But rest has a magnitude of benefits far beyond this easy to see and feel process. Do you grind your teeth? Do you catch yourself clamping down on one side of your jaw, or tonguing the inside of your teeth? Do bounce your legs while sitting or squeeze your toes for no reason? Do your eyes water for little to no reason? Pick at your finger? Bite your nails? Does a simple yet slightly uncomfortable situation make your head twitch or your eyes unfocus? Are your muscles tight around your knees and ankles, hips and low back? These are all signs that your meter of parasympathetic vs sympathetic or rest vs train or chill out vs jacked up, are out of balance. You my friend, need to chill the F out.

Sympathy shmimpathy

Fortunately, in recent years this type of issue has been widely recognized. The cause can often be traced back to a respiratory disorder. Do you breath in and your rib cage elevates up toward your neck? Do your ribs flare out and to the side? When you breath in does your rib cage tip back and push your ribs forward at the bottom? These are signs that you are engaging a breathing pattern that is designed to be reserved for stressful situations. If you employ this pattern 20,000 times per day then it is likely your "respiratory disorder" is actually a "rest disorder." Now this is not designed to invoke fear but to bring awareness. It is to bring awareness to a situation that can be creating your symptoms should you be having them. If you have no aches and pains but do have a stress issue, then practice relaxation in whichever healthy and socially acceptable manner you prefer. If you have hip, back, shoulder, neck tightness or pain, then seek out the advice of someone who understands these issues.


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