This week we are returning to our discussion on taking a multi-dimensional approach to building resilience with a focus on enhancing the quality of neurological stimulation. This is another crucial component in the NeuFit® approach to training for general health and fitness.
Many conventional training programs limit their focus to the muscles or the cardiovascular system, paying little attention to the neurological effects of what they’re doing. However, when we enhance the quality of neurological stimulation, we can have a more profound effect on long-term fitness. How? By facilitating continuous regeneration and growth at the physiological level.
To kickstart these beneficial physiological processes, training must be stimulating or strenuous enough to trigger the body’s recovery mechanisms.
Why does recovery matter?
Recovery is when the so-called magic happens at the level of the nervous system. In other words, training itself doesn’t improve health and performance. Instead, it’s the adaptations that happen during recovery from training that provide the health and performance benefits. During recovery, the body replenishes depleted energy stores. It also starts to rebuild and reinforce damaged structures—for example, strengthening and/or building muscle—in order to adapt and be able to perform better next time.
When recovery is at its peak, the metabolic rate increases to fuel the recovery process, and the body optimizes its hormonal profiles. Essentially, peak recovery is when we experience the true benefits of exercise. Unfortunately, most people who work out never actually take full advantage of these benefits.
Standard weekly exercise routines, which might include three cardio workouts plus a few weight machines at the gym, rarely create enough neurological stimulation to activate the body’s recovery mechanisms, let alone drive them to function at full capacity. Too often, people get stuck in the same workout routine. Despite exercising for years on end, their bodies don’t change—at least not for the better.
Although some exercise is certainly better than none, the average workout is usually not enough to send a signal to the brain that something meaningful has happened in the body (i.e., that the body has overcome a challenge). Without this signal, the nervous system can’t shift as completely (or as significantly) into parasympathetic mode after a workout, where it engages in the repair and remodeling processes that promote long-term health and fitness.
What does optimal recovery look like?
When we train optimally, we also recover optimally. There are five important physiological processes that take place during an optimal recovery cycle1, in the approximate order they take place:
- Restoring energy, including adenosinetriphosphate (ATP), creatine phosphate, and glycogen.
- Normalizing water and ionic balances, or water and electrolytes within the cells.
- Removing metabolic waste so the body can better absorb the nutrients it needs. This process also helps clear unwanted buildup, like plaques in the body or brain that can lead to long-term problems.
- Rebuilding cellular structures that were challenged during exercise, like muscle fibers, tendons, ligaments, and bones, so they grow stronger and can withstand future challenges more effectively.
- Remodeling the nervous system to strengthen specific synaptic connections and/or create new nerve pathways. (These adaptations are specific to the neurological pathways challenged during a training session.)
When is a workout enough?
It’s difficult to know in advance whether a workout will be stimulating enough to promote optimal nervous system function and kickstart the body’s recovery processes.
When we’re designing training programs at NeuFit, we start off by evaluating a client’s current capacity, using the information gathered from muscle tests, body scans with the Neubie® device, and observations of performance in various activities. Once we have this information, the goal is to challenge that client’s current capacity in order to raise their baseline fitness level by applying the right type and amount of neurological stimulation.
After each workout, we use a series of indicators to gauge the client’s neurological responses to training.
Based on factors like heart rate variability, blood pressure, energy level, bowel function, and psychological status, we can judge whether a workout was stimulating enough to shift the nervous system into a parasympathetic-dominant state.
If a workout isn’t stimulating enough, or if it provides too much stimulation, then the nervous system tends to stay in sympathetic mode, keeping the client locked in a stressed-out state long after they finish exercising.
One way to ensure that workouts are sufficiently stimulating is to use a tool like the Neubie neuro-electric stimulation device, which significantly yet safely raises the level of challenge. This way, clients benefit from increasing neurological and physical stimulation and reduce their risk of injury at the same time.
In contrast, traditional training approaches usually require that people do things like lift heavier weights, run faster, or exercise longer to increase the intensity and effectiveness of a workout. Although these activities have a place in training for athletic performance, they also increase the likelihood of injury and may not be appropriate for general fitness training clients (or anyone who’s not adequately prepared).
In cases where we want to incorporate some of these more traditional training methods, there are options and tweaks that can make them more effective neurologically. For example, some of the latest science on cardiovascular training explores strategies like interval training, which can improve traditional cardio workouts by making them more neurologically stimulating as well as more efficient.
Neurological stimulation through mobility exercises
Taking the joints through their full range of motion is another critical component of effective fitness training. Why? If people only focus on building muscle during training, they run the risk of becoming stiff and inflexible over time.
Outside of training, when it comes to movement, most people have a habitual range in which they use their bodies. Take the arms, for example. Most of the arms’ activities—like typing, driving, eating, and cooking—are right in front of the body. It’s rare for many people to use their arms for much else. Generally speaking, they don’t move their arms overhead, to the side, or behind them.
Due to the specificity of adaptation and the “use it or lose it” principle, range of motion grows increasingly narrow over time—unless we take action (i.e., do exercises) to preserve or expand it.
Besides increasing flexibility, mobility exercises also help enhance the quality of neurological stimulation during workouts. How? Remember that the joints have an extremely high concentration of nerves. Moving the joints through their full range activates nerve receptors and increases signals from the joints, creating neurological inputs that significantly activate the nervous system and help trigger optimal recovery. Taking all the joints (including the hips, knees, ankles, feet, spine, shoulders, elbows, and wrists) through their full range of motion on a regular basis also reduces the risk of injury and loss of function over time.
In the context of fitness training, joint mobility drills, or movements that push the body beyond its usual movement patterns, are one of the best ways to expand range of motion—and give the brain and nervous system the type of stimulation they need to function at their peak.
Efficient training for sustainable results
With any fitness approach, it takes time for the body to make meaningful adaptations and improvements. However, training at the neurological level can significantly accelerate this process. When a workout is neurologically stimulating and triggers effective recovery afterward, clients can overcome their plateaus more effectively and often make progress in each session. This helps them achieve results in far less time than with conventional approaches to training.
Beyond general health and fitness, working at the level of the brain and nervous system also has great potential when it comes to improving athletic performance. Integrating a neurological focus into their training can give high-level athletes a considerable edge—and help them maintain that edge over the long term.
Let’s charge forward to better (and sustainable) outcomes together!
1 For a thorough explanation of recovery and adaptation that describes these processes in detail, see: Atko Viru, Adaptation in Sports Training (New York: CRC Press, 1995).