If you ever need an intellectual motivation to get you off your butt and into an active program of exercise, read Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey (Little Brown and Company, New York, 2008). I found it an informative read, which gave compelling arguments why you should engage in systematic physical exercise. He mined thousands of scientific research papers to underpin his work in objective findings. He synthesizes the information into 303 pages, but wrapped it in an engaging narrative around it so that you don’t fall asleep due to dry scientific writing. He also drew on his own case studies with patients and a few amazing experiments in applying physical exercise to learning environments.
Ratey’s subheading to the title is “Supercharge your mental circuits to beat stress, shapen your thinking, list your mood, boost your memory, and much more.” Sounds as if he’s peddling some kind of miracle drug, but it’s just plain, ol’ sweat, muscles and grunts.
“The prescription … varies from varies 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.” (p. 247)
To cut to the chase, his formula calls for 30-60 minutes of aerobic exercise, usually running or equivalent intensity exercise, six times a week. On two days, he recommends five short sprints (30 seconds max) injected into a normal session (the max intervals seem to trigger the body’s optimization). Strength-training helps maintain or build muscle and bone mass, which can be affected by the aging process. Ratey also suggests that yoga, tai chi, martial arts or other similar activities be added to improve balance and flexibility, as well as body awareness and concentration. Obviously, it takes time, discipline and effort to work up to the condition of being able to sustain aerobic exercise for such long periods, but you will be rewarded.
Exercise has an impact on the brain’s neuroplasticity, creating new neurons as the building blocks. Ratey covered stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, addiction, hormonal change (menopause in women) and aging in separate chapters. Far and away the best thing you can do for your brain power, mental health and physical well-being is an active daily exercise regime.
Ratey gets down to the complex, inter-related chemical processes and components that create and balance the neurotransmitters that fire up the brain within the human body. Ratey’s conclusions are not new. There has been a steady drumbeat of stories in newspapers, magazines and on the web about how physical exercise can radically improve mental performance, ward off illnesses and aging and overcome mental disorders, like depression. He emphasized that it’s necessary to engage in physical exercise every day, both to make it a consistent habit and to make the body respond appropriately.
Ratey is a researcher and neuro-psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School who earned a reputation working on attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD). More information is available on his website and his blog, which links to news stories and features about his new book.