Healthy Body

I Tried the Nervous System Workout Challenge, and It Eased My Stress In Ways Meditation Never Has

Photo: Getty Images/mixetto
I tend to be a high-strung person, so I’ve tried just about anything I can find that might potentially help regulate my emotions and energy levels, and decrease stress: meditation apps, tapping, devices like Apollo Neuro. The results have been... less than stellar. Although other people swear by mindfulness meditation, for instance, it doesn’t seem to do anything positive for me; if anything, it revs me up.

So I was both eager and dubious about trying out a new app called NeuroFit that gives you daily five-minute exercises intended to help regulate your nervous system and promote emotional well-being.

First though, I spoke with James Giordano, PhD, MPhil, a professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center to learn more about how these types of brain exercises work. He explained that the app computes factors like your heart rate variability, breath rate, reaction latency, level of nervous system stability and arousal to give a quick evaluation of your sympathetic (think: fight or flight) and parasympathetic (think: rest and digest) nervous system functionality, and balance between the two. With this info, the app then suggests exercises to modulate that balance.

Dr. Giordano says that taken together, these nervous system evaluations and exercises can help you develop resilience and resistance to different forms of stress. What’s more, stabilizing that parasympathetic and sympathetic activity can help improve your cognitive clarity, attentional focus, emotional regulation, and your sleep quality. All things that we all could use more of, right?

My experience trying nervous system exercises

After downloading NeuroFit and answering some questions about my lifestyle habits and emotional state, the app measured my heart rate variability using the camera on the back of my phone. Heart rate variability (HRV) is a measure of fluctuations in the time between any two heart beats, and is an indication of your nervous system health and “readiness” for stress.

I then rated my overall mood state, as well as how I’d like to feel. Based on that, it suggests quite a number of “balance” exercises designed to activate different parts of the nervous system to bring your overall sympathetic/parasympathetic activation back into balance. They are all simple things like body tapping, diaphragmatic breathing, and interesting dynamic exercises like arm and leg squeezes, or standing weight shifting.

I felt a little awkward at first, but I must say, I really enjoyed them. I tend to be a really active person, which is probably why I find the stillness of meditation so uncomfortable. All of these nervous system exercises aren’t “exercise” like running or lifting weights, but most do have you moving the body in one way or another, which really works well for me.

One thing I love about the app is that you can do the exercises any time you want by clicking into the library and marking how you feel and how you want to feel. Then, as the list of suggested exercises is populated, each thumbnail shows a GIF of the movement you’ll be doing, a one-line written description, and how well the exercise matches your goals on a percentage level.

For example, one day it suggested that either the Butterfly exercise or Body Tapping would be an 84% match for my goals, while Standing Breath of Fire would be a 79% match. This rating system helps you pick the best exercise for your needs. I usually chose the top match, unless another exercise looked particularly cool.

After you’ve completed an exercise (they’re all just three minutes long), you re-rate how you feel and the app uses that info to help create a personalized toolkit for next time.

You also get personalized recommendations based on daily check-in questions. It might tell you to focus on getting more sleep, remembering not to eat late at night, or trying to cut back on stressful social media engagement—key lifestyle habits that can detract from nervous system health. I tend to be mindful of these types of factors already, but it’s good to have a regular reminder.

I’m now on my eighth day of using the app. As someone who likes to move my body and is seemingly incompatible with mindfulness meditation, it feels like a good fit for me. I can’t yet say that my overall stress level or emotional regulation is all that much better, but I absolutely notice a big difference immediately before and after using the app.

I asked Dr. Giordano how often you need to work out your nervous system to really see results. He says that, while the ideal frequency varies by individual, it’s likely best to do it more frequently in the beginning during the initial training phase, then either occasionally as needed, or regularly to sustain a baseline.

Perhaps for me, I need to do multiple exercises per day to really regulate my bevy of “big feelings.” But even the brief stress reduction I feel right after doing one is something I could never get from meditation—and that’s a win in my book.

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