We all know staying active is good for us, but how good is it? Bestselling author and psychiatrist, Dr. John J. Ratey explains just that in his book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. The book is jam-packed with research studies and science explanations for what makes physical activity vital to healthy living. Ratey is on a mission to prove exercise is our greatest defense against anything, from ADHD, addictions, and stress, to anxiety and depression, to name a few.
Right from the start, Spark grabbed my attention by describing how a high school in Naperville, Illinois optimized their students’ academic performance by scheduling PE as the first class of the day. Zero Hour PE is purposefully held before school starts to prime the students’ brain for learning, and this isn’t your typical PE class. The students wear heart rate monitors to gauge their physical exertion while jogging laps around the track. Their hard work paid off: Naperville made the number one ranking in the world for their results on the science section of the TIMSS (a test that compares students’ knowledge around the globe).
Even more fascinating is Naperville’s creativity in adding a mandatory square dancing class for freshman. The class was slotted as PE, with the underlying goal of developing social skills. Surprisingly, it turned out to be a brilliant idea! Students learned how to make friends and become more self-confident. Kudos to Naperville! They deserve national attention, and I only hope other districts learn a thing or two from their curriculum.
As the book describes the brain science behind how exercise improves our ability to learn and retain new information, Ratey discusses what type of physical activity is necessary for these mental gains. In a small study from Japan, William Greenough compared running rats to others that participated in complex motor skills (such as walking on a balance beam). After only two weeks, the acrobatic rats experienced a 35 percent increase of BDNF (or what Ratey calls “Miracle-Gro for the brain”) in the cerebellum while the running rats had zero increase in that area. What this means is that learning complex activities and adding them to your regimen helps engage nerve cells and strengthen neuronal pathways.
Ratey suggests mixing up your workout routine to include complex activities in addition to aerobic exercise. Think of activities that stimulate the cardiovascular system and the brain at the same time. For example, you may play tennis, practice yoga, learn karate, or take salsa lessons. You can also maintain your cardio routine, but add 10 minutes of balancing activities. Mix it up and have fun (and increase your learning potential)!
Especially for people with a tendency towards addictive behaviors, Spark makes a great case for exercise and how it rewires the brain and sidesteps the addictive pattern. Ratey describes addiction as a “neurological malfunction rather than a moral failure.” Recognizing addiction as a physical problem rather than a mental one can enable you to face it like a disease rather than a failure: treat the problem, rather than feeling like a failure (which just feeds the problem).
Ratey recommends a minimum of thirty minutes of aerobic exercise five days a week to combat addictions. Pick the time of day where your habit gets the best of you and do your exercise routine at that time. For example, if you drink after work, then exercise in the evening. Replace your addiction with a new habit and you’ll thank yourself later.
These are only a couple of the many ways exercise is good for your body and your mind. Needing a healthy dose of brain power? Get yourself a copy of Spark, and it will be hard not to work out. The evidence far outweighs the excuses for getting off the couch and into the gym.