SparkThe Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
BY JOHN J. RATEY, M.D.
Few Snippets from the book
“To keep our brains at peak performance, our bodies need to work hard. In Spark, I’ll demonstrate how and why physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel. I’ll explain the science of how exercise cues the building blocks of learning in the brain; how it affects mood, anxiety, and attention; how it guards against stress and reverses some of the effects of aging in the brain; and how in women it can help stave off the sometimes tumultuous effects of hormonal changes. I’m not talking about the fuzzy notion of runner’s high. I’m not talking about a notion at all. These are tangible changes, measured in lab rats and identified in people.”
“In Naperville, Illinois, gym class has transformed the student body of nineteen thousand into perhaps the fittest in the nation. Among one entire class of sophomores, only 3 percent were overweight, versus the national average of 30 percent. What’s more surprising — stunning — is that the program has also turned those students into some of the smartest in the nation. In 1999 Naperville’s eighth graders were among some 230,000 students from around the world who took an international standards test called TIMSS (Trends in International Mathematics and Science Study), which evaluates knowledge of math and science. In recent years, students in China, Japan, and Singapore have outpaced American kids in these crucial subjects, but Naperville is the conspicuous exception: when its students took the TIMSS, they finished sixth in math and first in the world in science. As politicians and pundits sound the alarm about faltering education in the United States, and about our students being ill-equipped to succeed in today’s technologydriven economy, Naperville stands out as an extraordinary bit of good news.”
“A notable experiment in 2007 showed that cognitive flexibility improves after just one thirtyfive-minute treadmill session at either 60 percent or 70 percent of maximum heart rate. The forty adults in the study (age fifty to sixty-four) were asked to rattle off alternative uses for common objects, like a newspaper — it’s meant for reading, but it can be used to wrap fish, line a birdcage, pack dishes, and so forth. Half of them watched a movie and the other half exercised, and they were tested before the session, immediately after, and again twenty minutes later. The movie watchers showed no change, but the runners improved their processing speed and cognitive flexibility after just one workout. Cognitive flexibility is an important executive function that reflects our ability to shift thinking and to produce a steady flow of creative thoughts and answers as opposed to a regurgitation of the usual responses. The trait correlates with high-performance levels in intellectually demanding jobs. So if you have an important afternoon brainstorming session scheduled, going for a short, intense run during lunchtime is a smart idea.”
“One of the best examples is a landmark research project from the Human Population Laboratory in Berkeley called the Alameda County Study. Researchers tracked 8,023 people for twenty-six years, surveying them about a number of factors related to lifestyle habits and healthiness starting in 1965. They checked back in with the participants in 1974 and in 1983. Of all the people with no signs of depression at the beginning, those who became inactive over the next nine years were 1.5 times more likely to have depression by 1983 than their active counterparts. On the other hand, those who were inactive to begin with but increased their level of activity by the first interval were no more likely to be depressed by 1983 than those who were active to begin with. In other words, changing your exercise habits changes your risk for depression.”
“Duscha is an expert in cardiovascular health, but he says the same thing almost every neuroscientist cited in these pages has said: “A little is good, and more is better.” The best, however, based on everything I’ve read and seen, would be to do some form of aerobic activity six days a week, for forty-five minutes to an hour. Four of those days should be on the longer side, at moderate intensity, and two on the shorter side, at high intensity. And while there’s conflicting evidence about whether high-intensity activity, which can force your body into anaerobic metabolism, impacts thinking and mood, it clearly releases some of the important growth factors from the body that build up the brain. So, on the shorter, high-intensity days, include some form of strength or resistance training. These days should not be back to back; your body and brain need recovery time to grow after high-intensity days. In total, I’m talking about committing six hours a week to your brain. That works out to 5 percent of your waking hours.”