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Everyday connections

Exercise and the autonomic system

In addition to its association with the fight-or-flight response and rest-and-digest functions, the autonomic system is responsible for certain everyday functions. For example, it comes into play when homeostatic mechanisms dynamically change, such as the physiological changes that accompany exercise. Getting on the treadmill and putting in a good workout will cause the heart rate to increase, breathing to be stronger and deeper, sweat glands to activate, and the digestive system to suspend activity. These are the same physiological changes associated with the fight-or-flight response, but there is nothing chasing you on that treadmill.

This is not a simple homeostatic mechanism at work because “maintaining the internal environment” would mean getting all those changes back to their set points. Instead, the sympathetic system has become active during exercise so that your body can cope with what is happening. A homeostatic mechanism is dealing with the conscious decision to push the body away from a resting state. The heart, actually, is moving away from its homeostatic set point. Without any input from the autonomic system, the heart would beat at approximately 100 bpm, and the parasympathetic system slows that down to the resting rate of approximately 70 bpm. But in the middle of a good workout, you should see your heart rate at 120–140 bpm. You could say that the body is stressed because of what you are doing to it. Homeostatic mechanisms are trying to keep blood pH in the normal range, or to keep body temperature under control, but those are in response to the choice to exercise.

Watch this video to learn about physical responses to emotion. The autonomic system, which is important for regulating the homeostasis of the organ systems, is also responsible for our physiological responses to emotions such as fear. The video summarizes the extent of the body’s reactions and describes several effects of the autonomic system in response to fear. On the basis of what you have already studied about autonomic function, which effect would you expect to be associated with parasympathetic, rather than sympathetic, activity?

Chapter review

The autonomic system integrates sensory information and higher cognitive processes to generate output, which balances homeostatic mechanisms. The central autonomic structure is the hypothalamus, which coordinates sympathetic and parasympathetic efferent pathways to regulate activities of the organ systems of the body. The majority of hypothalamic output travels through the medial forebrain bundle and the dorsal longitudinal fasciculus to influence brain stem and spinal components of the autonomic nervous system. The medial forebrain bundle also connects the hypothalamus with higher centers of the limbic system where emotion can influence visceral responses. The amygdala is a structure within the limbic system that influences the hypothalamus in the regulation of the autonomic system, as well as the endocrine system.

These higher centers have descending control of the autonomic system through brain stem centers, primarily in the medulla, such as the cardiovascular center. This collection of medullary nuclei regulates cardiac function, as well as blood pressure. Sensory input from the heart, aorta, and carotid sinuses project to these regions of the medulla. The solitary nucleus increases sympathetic tone of the cardiovascular system through the cardiac accelerator and vasomotor nerves. The nucleus ambiguus and the dorsal motor nucleus both contribute fibers to the vagus nerve, which exerts parasympathetic control of the heart by decreasing heart rate.

Watch this video to learn about physical responses to emotion. The autonomic system, which is important for regulating the homeostasis of the organ systems, is also responsible for our physiological responses to emotions such as fear. The video summarizes the extent of the body’s reactions and describes several effects of the autonomic system in response to fear. On the basis of what you have already studied about autonomic function, which effect would you expect to be associated with parasympathetic, rather than sympathetic, activity?

The release of urine in extreme fear. The sympathetic system normally constricts sphincters such as that of the urethra.

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Source:  OpenStax, Anatomy & Physiology. OpenStax CNX. Feb 04, 2016 Download for free at http://legacy.cnx.org/content/col11496/1.8
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