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If You’re Not Exercising This Tiny Nerve, You’re Working Out All Wrong

The vagus nerve runs from your brain to your gut and tells your body how to react to exercise. The question is, are you out of shape, or is it your nerve working against you?

Up until about 18 months ago, I was always one of those people who just couldn’t run. I’d masquerade as a fit person in athleisure, but secretly, I’d never made it through a single mile without having to stop after a few minutes because it felt like I was going to die. As much as my runner friends assured me that if I could make it through hot yoga and pilates, I could push through with running, I was certain I had a rare and potentially dangerous allergy to running any more than three minutes at a time. 

It turns out I wasn’t allergic, but I wasn’t out of shape either. The real reason I couldn’t run came down to my vagus nerve — the longest cranial nerve that connects our brains to our guts. The vagus nerve is most notably responsible for activating our parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for helping us rest and digest. It’s essentially the opposite of the sympathetic nervous system, which makes us stay alert, respond to threats and occasionally slip into fight-or-flight mode. That’s why the vagus nerve is brought up a lot with meditation, mindfulness and other aspects of mental health, because we need to stimulate it to chill the fuck out. It’s basically the clit of the brain. 

But in the context of exercise, the vagus nerve plays a key role in telling our muscles and organs how to respond to physical activity. Or in my case, the thing that’s supposed to tell the rest of my body, “Dude, we’re just running. Don’t freak out.”

“That overly exhausted ‘out of breath’ feeling we get during intense workouts is a complicated reaction, but a very real one that can freak folks out enough to stop whatever they’re doing,” John Fawkes, a certified personal trainer and nutritionist, tells me. And while people tend to assume they’re just out of shape or that workout is too hard for them, they’re often just failing to activate the vagus nerve and killing the messenger. So the panic “comes based on messages from your muscle fibers, lungs, heart and even hormones released by various glands,” Fawkes explains.

Usually these freakouts occur as a result of bad breathing. While deep breaths through the nose and out of our mouths, which fill the diaphragm with oxygen, have been found to stimulate the vagus nerve and activate the parasympathetic nervous system, “ineffective, shallow breathing can exacerbate reactions in all these other bodily systems that proper breathing would calm,” Fawkes says. “Together, it creates a real feeling of stress in your body that makes a lot of folks think, ‘This is too intense, I need to stop.’”

This doesn’t mean that you can’t try new and challenging workouts, rather that you can only increase intensity to the extent that you’re still breathing effectively. “With the practice of correct breathing when you’re in intense workouts — that’s how the vagus nerve is strengthened,” says Alex Smith, a certified strength and conditioning trainer. “So, just working out all the time will help, but to get that true balance where you aren’t going into ‘fight-or-flight mode,’ it’s all about breathing the right way.”

Simply put, by refocusing the intensity of your workout on breathing properly first and foremost, you don’t just get jacked, your vagus nerve does too. A person with a ripped vagus nerve is more accurately referred to as having a “high vagal tone” — the higher the tone, the faster a person can return to relaxation after mental and physical stress and the healthier a person is. Since the vagus nerve also helps control inflammatory cells, a high vagal tone can also be crucial for weightlifters and athletes recovering from injuries, Smith notes, not just novice runners trying to make it through a mile. Really, for a long, skinny nerve that no one will ever see, it might be the most important body part to exercise. 

In an effort to beef up my vagal tone, I started running as slowly as possible, without tracking my time or distance. My only goal was to maintain control of breath. To my surprise, after only about a week of practicing this, I was able to run a mile without stopping. Not only that, once I understood how my vagus nerve worked, it was so easy that I wondered why it had taken me more than 30 years to figure out. If it were any easier, I would’ve had to have started smoking for the challenge. But instead, I tried a few breathing exercises to strengthen my new favorite nerve. 

Viva Las Vagus, indeed.