Exercise: Keep it social

Want to get the best benefits out of your fitness routine, whether it be in the gym or outside on the trails? Research is showing that the American concept of “exercise,” as we know it, e.g., putting in hard miles, is not the best tactic. “No pain, no gain” can actually add stress to our lives if undertaken in in the wrong way.

It’s not only the specific exercises you do that define your health and fitness, but with whom you do them that can help to determine the long-term outcome.

In order to create the best exercise plan for your overall health, it helps to understand some basic human physiology.

Our Autonomic Nervous System that runs our body under the surface of our conscious thought, is divided into two main parts, the Sympathetic Nervous System, responsible for “fight or flight,” and the Parasympathetic Nervous System, which regulates “rest and digest.”

Fight or flight

This is the “get up and go” part of our nervous system. Depending on its level of activation, it helps us do everything from rolling ourselves out of bed in the morning for work to giving us that extra push to run from a ravening tiger.

Vital nutrients and oxygen are diverted away from maintaining your internal organs and shunted to the muscles. Short term, this reaction to stress is supremely useful, but long term “fight or flight” stress has been linked to a huge host of chronic diseases.

Unfortunately, most strenuous solo exercise tends to strongly activate this system at least temporarily.

Rest and digest

This system is in charge of getting you to chill out, to slow down, to take a chance to ingest and digest, and to relax and reproduce. This state is important, but it can be damaging to go to extremes here, as well.

In the extreme of this relaxed spectrum, you can actually end up with fainting, spontaneous defecation and immobilization freezing behaviors in response to stress or trauma.

Regulated by social engagement

New research (Polyvagal Theory) reveals that both of these systems are balanced by an overarching “social-engagement system.” This social system is based in our mammalian history as social animals. Our ancestors lived, worked and played together in tightly knit groups that depended upon each other for their survival.

When we feel safe, loved and accepted by our group, the social engagement system kicks in and balances the other two systems out. This helps keep you centered and prevents you from slipping off into a negative stress reaction when exercising or during stress-inducing events. This is a key reason why having close relationships is a predictor of your overall health and lifespan.

What does this mean for how we choose to exercise? Play together.

One of the most powerful stimulators of this social-engagement system is interactive play. Play stimulates feelings of belonging, safety, confidence and creativity, all of which significantly buffer the potential negative effects of fight or flight activation.

Here’s a few exercise suggestions:

• Team play: Exercise with friends as part of a group. Anything from playing softball together to a multi-day backpacking trip with friends can help you reap the benefits of social interaction combined with physical activity. The bonus of being out in the green of nature significantly magnifies these benefits.

• Gym buddies: Working with a personal trainer you like and respect or heading to the gym (or hitting the trail) with a good buddy can have strong benefits for not only your muscles, but also your overall health.

• Solo exercise with social support: And not to worry. Solo exercise is not necessarily adding damaging chronic stress to your system. Research shows there is some carryover stress protection from having strong social relationships even if you aren’t actually physically exercising with them.

Also, pre-exercise through loving kindness meditation, or positive thoughts and emotions about those you love can also potentially add to the social benefits.

Avoid negativity

You don’t get the same benefits if you strongly dislike the people you are playing with. In fact, this can be detrimental to your health, so choose your exercise partners wisely.