A highly sensitive person (HSP) is an individual who is regarded to have heightened responsiveness of the central nervous system to a variety of stimuli, including physical, emotional, and social triggers. Some people also refer to this condition as having sensory processing sensitivity, or SPS for short.
Many situations can feel overwhelming to a highly sensitive person. If you are hypersensitive to touch, noise and the environment, exercising in busy, loud surroundings like the gym is likely to be a big no-no in your books. However, there are many wonderful ways for an HSP to benefit from exercise; here are our top four.
1. Focus on low-impact exercises
HSPs are considered to have sensitive sympathetic autonomic nervous systems (SANS) and often react more intensely to external stressors. When faced with an unsettling situation, the SANS can go into overdrive, activating the individual’s fight-or-flight reaction in response.
Consequently, one of the greatest difficulties for HSPs is to self-regulate and learn to lower the intensity of their emotions. Deep breathing is a great tool to reduce anxiety and tension by calming the SANS, and is an integral component of many low-impact exercises.
As an HSP, you may benefit from practising this kind of exercise in the comfort of your own home. There is a wealth of online resources available online, like low-impact HIIT or this stretching program created by a former ballerina. Or, another alternative is yoga: for example, this restorative session contains breathing exercises designed specifically for HSPs.
2. Start strength training
Many HSPs have difficulty with how they evaluate themselves, and some battle with poor self-esteem and negative beliefs about their physical appearance.
In some individuals, weight training has been found to dramatically improve self-confidence. One study, for example, found that resistance exercise increased feelings of pride and emotional wellness in its participants — whether they grew physically stronger from the exercises or not.
To help you get the most out of strength training workouts, it may be worth employing a personal trainer to practise with either at home, outdoors or in a quiet studio. This is a good idea if you are new to strength training and unfamiliar with the correct way to lift weights.
3. Avoid peak gym periods
In a recent survey, one in four women admitted to avoiding exercising at a gym due to a phenomenon known as ‘gymtimidation’ — the feeling of nervousness or anxiety that many people feel when they think about working out in a fitness centre. Often perceived as noisy, sweaty hotbeds of lycra — the common gymnasium can be especially off-putting for HSPs.
However, gyms can be fantastic places to workout if you plan ahead of time. Let’s compare it to your morning commute (if you have one). For many HSPs, travelling during peak hours can be an unpleasant experience, however, commuting off-peak can be much less stressful. The same is true for gyms, with many much less busy at specific times of day — such as mid-morning.
So, if you like the idea of working out in a gym — don’t be put off. Why not arrange to have an induction at your local centre? During this time, an instructor should advise you on how to best use the equipment and enjoy your experience there. Moreover, if you are a woman, many gyms offer gender-specific perks, such as female-only classes and swimming sessions.
4. Engage in nature
The health benefits of immersing ourselves in green space are now widely accepted, with some research suggesting that natural environments can even put the brain into a meditative state. Whether you are a nature lover or not, exercising away from the hustle and bustle of urban environments might just be the best way to enjoy working out as an HSP.
HSPs are often introverts that benefit from spending time alone. Going to a peaceful, natural environment may prompt you to find the peace of mind necessary for introspective contemplation. You might also find it easier to refuel your social reserves, making other workouts more enjoyable.
Exercising in nature does not limit you to cardiovascular exercise like walking or cycling, however. If you find a suitable location, nothing is stopping you (except perhaps the unpredictable British weather) from practising yoga, jogging, and strength training in the great outdoors.