Spark by John Ratey M.D. & Eric Hagerman (2008)

I exercise every day and I often tell people that I do it not just because it helps keep me in physical shape but because it is also a form of therapy and stress reduction. It keeps me calm, helps me focus on the tasks that follow, and it gives me a huge sense of accomplishment. After all, a day in which the only task I had time to complete was my workout still feels like a success. It can be hugely motivating to know that making time for exercise in my day is a way to tend to my mental , as well as my physical, health.  So, when I heard Dr. Ratey’s book mentioned on Fresh Air, I knew I had to pick us a copy to learn more about the science of exercise.

Dr. Ratey writes a well-argued and thoroughly documented book on the critical role that exercise plays in our emotional well-being and brain health. In his opening paragraph, he makes his main argument for the book, “We all know that exercise makes us feel good but most of us have no idea why. The point of exercise is to build and condition the brain. Building muscles and conditioning the body are side effects.”  The remaining chapters outline, at length, the many ways that being active and fit dramatically improves your emotional health. Exercise fuels brain growth especially in areas of the brain “shrunk” by stress and depression. Regular workouts, Ratey argues, make your brain healthier, allowing you to learn more, retain more, achieve more, become more emotionally stable, better able to manage your mental state, and primes the brain to better handle challenges.

In particular, I was fascinated by his arguments that exercise can help us expel energy and stress so that afterwards we can keep calm and make better, less frantic, decisions. Going for a morning run can clear the cobwebs and make getting down to the tasks at hand easier when we get home. I found it fascinating that Ratey recommends this approach even for people with ADHD and similar mental conditions, their need for speed and frantic multitasking can be calmed by giving their body and mind a vigorous workout.

The book is very technical and case-study heavy, at times it is hard to extract the little gems of information the author presents, but a close reading reveals many interesting tips. Here are some to the things I found fascinating:

  • Inactivity is “shriveling our brains” as it contributes to emotional distress, chronic stress, physical discomfort and illness.
  • The more complex the motor movements involved in the exercise, the greater benefits to your brain. Rather than biking everyday, we should also incorporate workouts that are dynamic and change constantly such as tennis and basketball, whitewater kayaking, hiking, or gymnastics.
  • Just after exercise sessions the brain fully oxygenated and is operating at peak function. At these moments we are “primed” for maximum learning and handling challenges. He suggests scheduling presentations or creative work for the hours right after a hard workout.
  • Exercise trains your brain to be better to able cope with stress. Exercise “loosens the hold stress has over your physical and emotional states.” Chronic stress may begin as an emotional state but eventually those negative emotions lead to physical distress and may prevent the brain from creating new memories and limit learning.
  • Exercise should be a first line of defense for mental disorders, anxiety or panic attacks, and depression. It is also critical for physical conditions known to be stressful for patients (heart disease, autoimmune disease). It is doubly effective in these cases because it improves physical symptoms of disorder and reduces the mental stress the disease causes.
  • “Some exercise is good, more is better.” “Burn calories like your life depends on it.” Consistency and scheduling is key to using exercise as a mental health tool. (Ratey recommends completing exercise every day, ideally at the same time, for maximum benefit. But try to switch up what exercises fill that hour.) Socializing while exercise has even more mental health benefits.
  • The benefits of exercise for women’s health is very dramatic and critical at all stages; in managing PMS symptoms, in having healthy pregnancies, in reducing risk and severity of depression, better managing the changes of menopause, and it has protective benefits against dementia.

If you don’t have time to read the book, you can watch Dr. Ratey’s TED Talk (which is a condensed version of the research in his book) here


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