Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, M.D. was released in 2008, but I discovered it just a couple of months ago at our local public library. It looked intriguing, so I checked it out. However, by the time it was due, I had yet to read it (two weeks just isn’t enough!).
Earlier this month, I got back to working on my book and started writing chapter 12, “Taking Care of Physical Needs”:
I started exercising regularly shortly after Rebecka was born. Initially, I was mostly interested in losing the “baby fat,” but eventually—especially once I started running—it became kind of addicting. I noticed that on days I didn’t exercise, I felt sluggish and slightly depressed. In fact, I’d often warn people if I hadn’t exercised a given morning that I might be cranky (similar to coffee drinkers warning people not to talk to them until they’ve had their morning coffee).
Exercise affects mood. There is no doubt about it. Our bodies were built to move. We have joints and muscles and a heart that can handle a decent amount of strain, assuming you condition it on a regular basis. It is natural for our bodies to move daily.
Once I started working on the section about exercise as an alternative treatment for sub-optimal mental health, I realized that I really needed to read Spark, because even though I knew how I felt after exercising (or not exercising), I didn’t understand the science behind it. So I downloaded it to my Kindle and started reading immediately. It blew me away.
Exercise for Brain Health
The key message of this book is that the most important reason to exercise regularly is for brain health—not to lose weight or condition your heart. These are nice side effects of exercise, but not the most important reason to move our bodies.
…the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important—and fascinating— than what it does for the body.
It All Goes Back to the Hunter-Gatherer
Our ancestors relied on movement for survival. The hunter-gatherer needed to be able to walk/jog for miles to track his prey and then be able to sprint to make the kill. Our brains evolved to to help us 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.
As the author points out, the irony is that our uniquely evolved brain has allowed us to engineer movement out of our lives. And we’re suffering the consequences.
Exercise Balances Our Brains
You’ve heard of serotonin and dopamine deficiencies and the theory that depression is linked to a deficiency in these neurotransmitters. Medication selectively addresses specific neurotransmitters (which may or may not be to blame) while exercise balances the overall health of the brain.
I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters.
…the deeper explanation is that exercise balances neurotransmitters—along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.
We actually don’t know what causes depression. But what we do know is that exercise is more effective than medication in treating depression in the long run. Likely due to its more holistic approach to brain chemistry and giving the person a sense of “self-mastery” or being in control of the situation.
Exercise Creates New Brain Cells
Dr. Ratey also provides evidence that exercise triggers the creation of new brain cells (called neurogenesis). I didn’t know this was possible! He explains that these new cells are looking for information to store, so it’s best to do hard-core learning right after you exercise (bring on Lumosity!).
…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.
How Much Exercise Is Needed?
Based on all his research on the benefits of exercise, Dr. Ratey suggests the following:
I think the best advice is to follow our ancestors’ routine: walk or jog every day, run a couple of times a week, and then go for the kill every now and then by sprinting.
Dr. Ratey also suggests that including some complex movement exercise (e.g. dance or martial arts) is especially beneficial (and required for people with attention problems).
Dr. Ratey is a psychiatrist, and I appreciate that he is raising his voice in favor of utilizing exercise as a form of treatment (and prevention) for stress, depression, anxiety, ADHD, and more. He provides examples of patients who have successfully gotten off various medications by sticking with an exercise routine.
However, when it comes to ADHD, he is a lot more cautious (and he is an ADHD expert):
For most of my patients, I suggest exercise as a tool to help them manage their symptoms along with their medication.
I will have to do some more research to find out if there are successful case studies of treating ADHD only with exercise, diet, and environment adjustments before I know what to think about this.
Overall, this book is a must-read if you want to understand the effect exercise has on your brain—and especially if you struggle with depressive moods, anxiety, stress, or attention problems. I will definitely include some of the concepts in my book.
Time to go build some brain cells!