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

Here are my comments on the book:

What’s ONE thing that can increase your ability to learn, decreases stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit disorder, addiction, hormonal changes, AND slow down aging starting today? The answer is exercise. In his book Dr. John J Ratey, M.D., associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, lists out all of the benefits of exercise based on research and studies. As the book just reiterates the benefits of exercise and we all know that we should exercise, I’ll keep my comments brief and I’ll just highlight the best parts of the book. Here are some of the points to the book:


1. From an evolutionary perspective, we are meant to move around significantly more than we currently do. Quit staring at your screens so much and move around. In today’s technology-driven, plasma-screened-in world, it’s easy to forget that we are born movers — animals, in fact — because we’ve engineered movement right out of our lives. Ironically, the human capacity to dream and plan and create the very society that shields us from our biological imperative to move is rooted in the areas of the brain that govern movement. As we adapted to an ever-changing environment over the past half million years, our thinking brain evolved from the need to hone motor skills. We envision our hunter-gatherer ancestors as brutes who relied primarily on physical prowess, but to survive over the long haul they had to use their smarts to find and store food. The relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry. But we no longer hunt and gather, and that’s a problem. The sedentary character of modern life is a disruption of our nature, and it poses one of the biggest threats to our continued survival. Evidence of this is everywhere: 65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese, and 10 percent of the population has type 2 diabetes, a preventable and ruinous disease that stems from inactivity and poor nutrition. Once an affliction almost exclusively of the middle-aged, it’s now becoming an epidemic among children. We’re literally killing ourselves, and it’s a problem throughout the developed world, not merely a province of the supersize lifestyle in the United States. What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too — physically shriveling them.


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2. Keep learning as well exercising as we’re hardwired to continuously learn. When we learn, we form new connections in our brain which allows us to stay mentally sharp and decreases the effects of aging. Darwin taught us that learning is the survival mechanism we use to adapt to constantly changing environments. Inside the microenvironment of the brain, that means forging new connections between cells to relay information. When we learn something, whether it’s a French word or a salsa step, cells morph in order to encode that information; the memory physically becomes part of the brain. As a theory, this idea has been around for more than a century, but only recently has it been borne out in the lab. What we now know is that the brain is flexible, or plastic in the parlance of neuroscientists — more Play-Doh than porcelain. It is an adaptable organ that can be molded by input in much the same way as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting barbells. The more you use it, the stronger and more flexible it becomes.


3. Despite what you may have been told or thought, your brain isn’t fixed; it’s like a “muscle” that can grow. As the concept of synaptic plasticity took hold in neuroscience, an even more radical notion of growth was gaining credence. For the better part of the twentieth century, scientific dogma held that the brain was hardwired once fully developed in adolescence, meaning we’re born with all the neurons we’re going to get. We can rearrange synapses all we like, but we can only lose neurons. Certainly, we can speed up the decline, a point that your eighth-grade biology teacher may have made to scare you away from underage drinking. “Now, remember: alcohol kills brain cells, and they never grow back.” But guess what? They do grow back — by the thousands. Not until scientists became handy with advanced imaging tools that enabled them to peer into the brain did they find conclusive evidence, which was published in a seminal 1998 paper. It came from an unlikely source. Cancer patients are sometimes injected with a dye that shows up in proliferating cells so that the spread of the disease can be tracked. Researchers looked at the brains of terminally ill patients who had donated their bodies to science and found that their hippocampi were packed with the dye marker, proof that neurons were dividing and propagating — a process called neurogenesis — just like cells in the rest of the body. With that, they formalized one of the biggest discoveries in neuroscience.


4. Studies have demonstrated on numerous occasions that exercise improves not only your health but also your cognitive abilities. Want to learn faster and retain more of it? Exercise more. What I would suggest, then, is to either choose a sport that simultaneously taxes the cardiovascular system and the brain — tennis is a good example — or do a ten-minute aerobic warm-up before something nonaerobic and skill-based, such as rock climbing or balance drills. While aerobic exercise elevates neurotransmitters, creates new blood vessels that pipe in growth factors, and spawns new cells, complex activities put all that material to use by strengthening and expanding networks. The more complex the movements, the more complex the synaptic connections. And even though these circuits are created through movement, they can be recruited by other areas and used for thinking. This is why learning how to play the piano makes it easier for kids to learn math.


5. Exercise increases your energy level and as a result your productivity. Exercising is a “step back” to move two steps forward in your work. Since the office is a primary source of stress for a lot of people, it’s a good place to look for the benefits of exercise. More and more companies are encouraging their employees to take advantage of in-house gyms or health club memberships, and some health insurance companies reimburse clients for club fees. Their generosity is informed by studies showing that exercise reduces stress and makes for more productive employees. In 2004 researchers at Leeds Metropolitan University in England found that workers who used their company’s gym were more productive and felt better able to handle their workloads. Most of the 210 participants in the study took an aerobics class at lunchtime, for forty-five minutes to an hour, but others lifted weights or practiced yoga for thirty minutes to an hour. They filled out questionnaires at the end of every workday about how well they interacted with colleagues, managed their time, and met deadlines. Some 65 percent fared better in all three categories on days they exercised. Overall, they felt better about their work and less stressed when they exercised. And they felt less fatigued in the afternoon, despite expending energy at lunchtime.


6. Exercise has been shown to increase your happiness and can even get you out of depression.The best study on this issue was conducted in Australia several years ago, with twenty women suffering postpartum depression who’d given birth within the previous year. Half of them were on antidepressants. Researchers chose a form of exercise that is exceedingly convenient for new moms: walking with a stroller. One group of ten women walked with their strollers for forty minutes at 60 to 75 percent of their maximum heart rate three times a week and attended one social support meeting, while the other ten women, in the control group, carried on their normal routines. They all established a baseline score on the Edinburgh Postnatal Depression Scale (EPDS) and were tested again at six weeks, and then at twelve weeks, when the trial ended. Anyone who scores higher than 12 is considered clinically depressed. The stroller-pushers increased fitness and significantly lowered their EPDS scores at both intervals. The exercise group started with a mean score of 17.4, and it dropped to 7.2 and then 4.6. The control group started with a mean of 18.4, dropped to 13.5, and then nudged up again to 14.8.


7. How much should you exercise? First get fit and then challenge yourself to get to an even higher level. When people ask me how much exercise they should do for their brain, I tell them the best advice is to get fit and then continue challenging themselves. The prescription for how to do that 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. Does that mean you have to look like an underwear model to enjoy the brain benefits of exercise? Not at all. In fact, many of the most convincing studies use walking as the mode of exercise. But I focus on getting fit because we know with certainty that having a normal body mass index and a robust cardiovascular system optimizes your brain. Any level of activity will help, certainly, but from a practical standpoint, if you’re going to bother doing something for your brain, you might as well do enough to protect your body against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and the like. Body and brain are connected. Why not take care of both?


8. Find others to exercise with. Humans are social creatures and incorporating a social element in to your fitness/health will increase the chances that you’ll stick to your fitness plan.One of the best ways to get on a roll is to get in a group. The stimulus of social interaction starts your neurons firing like nothing else — it’s complicated, challenging, rewarding, and fun. And when you combine this sort of mental activity with the priming effect of exercise, you’re maximizing the growth potential of your brain. Exercise cues up the building blocks of learning, and social interaction cements them in place. Princeton neuroscientist Elizabeth Gould, a pioneer in the field of neurogenesis whose research focuses on how experience and environment change the brain, has studied the different effects of exercise on animals living alone versus those living in a group. She has found that social interaction has a powerful impact on neurogenesis. In one experiment, after twelve days of running, rodents housed in social groups showed a significant increase in neurogenesis over others that exercised just as much but were kept in isolation. In fact, the isolated runners had the same low level of cell proliferation as group-housed controls that didn’t exercise. The reason has to do with the stress hormone cortisol. In her study, published in Nature Neuroscience in 2006, Gould found that while all the runners had elevated cortisol during exercise, levels for the isolated group were also high at other times of the day. In other words, cortisol won out over neurogenesis in the isolated condition, but social support “blunted the reactivity” of the HPA axis and kept the stress hormone from interfering with growth. Does that mean that going for a run by yourself is bad news? Not at all.


By Ryan Timothy Lee


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My rating:
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