Making “Sense” in the Gym

Remember when you had a fight with your significant other, got turned down for a raise and stubbed your toe as you got dressed for the gym…all within the span of one hour? Remember how good you felt after you started working out? Something happened between the screaming match and the bench press that elevated your spirits and made everything feel better—maybe even more organized.

That something relates to a process called “sensory integration” (SI). Since a normally functioning brain is perpetually responding to sensory input, SI is the means by which your brain organizes that input so it can be used effectively and keep you operating on a somewhat even keel. However, if the input begins to overwhelm, you might find yourself experiencing a version of sensory defensiveness—overly sensitive to sights, sounds, touch, or movement; disoriented; unable to calm yourself. As a method of leveling out one’s arousal state, your cognitive system is designed to find ways to soothe these symptoms.

The theories behind SI were first developed by an occupational therapist (OT) and researcher named Jean Ayres and they pertain primarily to individuals with motor or sensory problems that impair their ability to soothe such symptoms by themselves. However, these same ideas may apply—to a much lesser degree—to anyone experiencing temporary difficulty processing the information their body is receiving through the traditional five senses or the lesser known “whole body” senses—tactile, vestibular and, in particular, proprioceptive. The proprioceptive senses, based in the muscles, ligaments, joints and the nerves that serve them, process information about where the body and its various parts are in space—this is where something called “heavy work” comes into play. It is a form of sensory accommodation that may help regulate and organize by decreasing negative reactions to sensory input. All this is not as complicated or abstract as it sounds.

Different parts of our brain are responsible for keeping us organized, sensory-wise. The cortex (top) takes care of the thinking part. The cerebellum (back) takes in proprioceptive input from the muscles and joints. The brain stem (center) regulates how alert we feel. So, let’s say you’re feeling hyper and a bit frazzled and you know you need to focus on a challenging mental task later that day. A typical approach might find you attempting to inhibit your high energy level perhaps by telling yourself to calm down and focus. This requires the top-down approach of calling on your cortex through reason and self-coaching and this tactic is often not successful for more than a few minutes.

“A more efficient way is to engage the back part of the brain [cerebellum],” write Mary Sue Williams and Sherry Shellenberger. “If one can engage this part of the brain, it will send messages to the center part of the brain [stem], which in turn, will help the body attain an optimal arousal state.” In other words, the approach is bottom-up with the brain receiving input from the body as the muscles and joints do their thing to handle the heavy load.

In a more traditional SI sense, the person in question might be a hyperactive child and a teacher might ask that child to carry a heavy box to another classroom before s/he attempted a tough mental task. In the case of a typically functioning adult with access to a gym, well, it might be an excellent time to hit the weight room.

“The back part of the brain,” Williams and Shellenberger explain, “is stimulated through heavy work to muscles and joints.” This type of proprioceptive input, they add, is “very useful in helping the brain to regulate arousal states.” This holds true for when your body’s engine is running too low as well as too high. Anyone who has worked out when feeling depressed or unmotivated can attest to the “high” achieved in the gym.

This is partially because heavy work sends calming and organizing information from the muscles and joints to the brain. That’s why we often “crave” a workout when feeling overwhelmed or depressed.
It can be comforting to know that a small dose of bliss is just a workout away.

Illustration by Tom LaMothe