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Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD – Book Review

Want to Be Smarter? Get More Exercise

Want to be smarter? Get more exercise.

I’m not sure why it’s so surprising to find out that if something’s good for your body, it’s good for your brain too. After all, the brain is part of the body so it makes perfect sense.  Yet few of us have suspected just how good for the brain exercise can be.

Written in an engaging storytelling style, Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD draws upon recent groundbreaking research, to explain how exercise enhances learning, lowers stress and anxiety, and can help the aging brain stay young.

Dr. Ratey, an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard, begins his book by making a strong argument for more Physical Education in our schools. But the kind PE he suggests is not the typical program emphasizing competitive sports.  It’s about teaching students fitness. Not just in high school, but for life.  He reports extensively about the Naperville, Illinois school system which boasts a student body of nineteen thousand, and one of the fittest in the US. For example, only 3 per cent of Naperville sophomores are obese vs the national average of over 30%.

Even more impressive is the fact that fit students tend to perform better academically. In 2001 a California study showed that fit students scored twice as well as their unfit peers. A 2004 review of over 850 different studies of the effects of physical activity in school children found that exercise has a positive influence on memory, concentration and classroom behavior. It’s tragic that currently only 6% of US high schools offer daily PE.

Spark includes chapters on the beneficial effects of exercise on Stress, Anxiety, Depression, Attention Deficit, Addiction, Hormonal Changes and Aging. In each chapter Ratey shares inspiring stories, research and the basic neuroscience explaining exactly how exercise benefits the brain.

“Exercise is the single most powerful tool to optimize your brain function.”

“The point I’ve tried to make — that exercise is the single most powerful tool to optimize your brain function — is based on evidence I’ve gathered from hundreds and hundreds of research papers, most of them published only within the last decade.”

In one such study at Colombia University, neurologist Scott Small put a group of volunteers on a 3 month exercise regimen and then took pictures of their brains. The capillary volume in the memory area of the hippocampus increased by 30%, a remarkable change.

How much exercise should you get to benefit your brain?

The exercise needs to be aerobic and many of the most convincing studies use walking. Ratey suggests  taking the first step and start by working up to 45 – 60 minutes per day at 55 to 65% of your maximum heart rate. “The prescription will vary from person to person, but the research consistently shows that the more fit you are, the more resilient your brain becomes and the better it functions both cognitively and psychologically.  If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow,” says Ratey.  He adds, “I have faith that when people come to recognize how their lifestyle can improve their health span — living better, not simply longer — they will, at the very least, be more inclined to stay active. And when they come to accept that exercise is as important for the brain as it is for the heart, they’ll commit to it.”

If you need more motivation to get moving, read Spark, The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It will do your body and your brain a lot of good.

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{ 13 comments… add one }
  • i’m suffering of borderline personality disorder. and one of the best treat is sport! it’s a very important part in my life to live with my illness a happier life.

  • Hi Linda, I’ve also read this book, and it’s excellent. Isn’t it interesting that so much of the focus of staying mentally active (and staving off Alzheimer’s disease) has been on pouring over soduku (however it is spelled), crossword puzzles, and pricy computer exercises?

    A big part of the reason is that people don’t think about the fact that, whatever else it my be, the brain is another body organ which needs oxygen and glucose and such to do a good job. Or to put it another way: “What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.”

    Thank you for spreading this vital message. Just one more great reason to get outdoors and walk or run or ride your bike.

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