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Wednesday, February 11, 2009

"SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain"

Elucidating The Mind-Body Connection... 'We Are Built To Move'

I've long thought that movement and touch are essentials to the health and well-being of living things ("You are built to move," writes the author), and I'm also much interested in the whole 'mind-body connection' arena. So it was natural that a book entitled "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain" would catch my eye. The volume is written by Dr. John J. Ratey who has focused in the past on ADHD and other psychiatric issues, and in this volume contends that "exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize brain function." There are a great many mind-body books on the market these days, ranging from questionable fluff to cutting edge science. This volume definitely falls toward the latter end of that range and is a worthy read. Its take-home message is no different than a lot of other volumes, but it does so with the backing of more brain science and research than many books.

In the Introduction Ratey writes, "...we no longer hunt and gather, and that's a problem. The sedentary character of modern life is a disruption of our nature..." And much later this: "...our genes are coded for this activity, and our brains are meant to direct it. Take that activity away, and you're disrupting a delicate biological balance that has been fine-tuned over half a million years." Ratey's book is a strong push to remain active, for the benefit of brain chemistry (and its ensuing effects).

Chapter 1 focuses on the experience of Naperville School District 203 in Illinois, giving 19,000 students PE classes that centered on fitness and lifestyle (i.e. exercise/movement), NOT sports, and the resultant benefits, including reduced obesity statistics.
Throughout the book Dr. Ratey discusses elements of brain chemistry, that are augmented by exercise including serotonin, dopamine, other neurotransmitters, and a key neurotrophin known as BDNF, among others.
Subsequent chapters focus on "stress," "anxiety," "depression," "ADHD," and "addiction," using many individual anecdotal examples, as well as laboratory research to indicate that exercise is often as effective (and safer) than pharmaceuticals for treating these conditions. Moreover, Ratey notes that exercise "adjusts" an entire series of brain chemicals, whereas drugs often only act upon a single brain chemical. And like certain drugs, exercise itself can be addictive, but Ratey shrugs, "don't worry about it," because the risk of that occurring is so small relative to the benefits gained; moreover exercise is more likely to counteract other stresses that often feed addictive behavior.

For female readers chapter 8 covers the positive impact of exercise on PMS, menopause, and post-partum problems, and the value of exercise even during pregnancy. Toward the end of the chapter Ratey writes (surprisingly to me) that, "It's well established that more women suffer from Alzheimer's disease than men, even when the statistics are adjusted for the fact that women live longer." Still, Alzheimer's and mental sharpness more generally, are definite concerns for both genders in this time of increased longevity, and regular exercise is an important protective element against the progression of age, if we hope to live, not just longer, but better.

Ratey summarizes the positive effects of aerobic exercise (essentially, movement that increases heart rate) as, 1) strengthening the cardiovascular system, 2) regulating "fuel," 3) reducing obesity, 4) decreasing stress, 5) elevating mood, 6) boosting the immune system, 7) fortifying bones, 8) boosting motivation, and finally, 9) fostering neuroplasticity. Best of all exercise is free, flexible, and readily available throughout our lives. Almost as an afterthought he mentions the value as well of 'mental exercise' and of 'eating light and eating right' for overall health. Also, research is less clear how valuable NON-aerobic activity is --- strength training, resistance training, balance work, yoga, tai chi, etc. certainly all bestow benefits, but likely not as many as aerobic work specifically for brain activity/chemistry.

Many other books probably make the same basic points and recommendations that Ratey does here; I'm just not sure how many of those books make them as solidly as Ratey does.


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