Review: Spark

Runs last week:

✧ 2.95 miles, 32:00 – 10:50 pace
✧ 2.44 miles, 32:00, hills – 13:06 pace
✧ 2.36 miles, 30:00, new shoes – 12:42 pace
✧ 2.75 miles, 30:00 – 10:54 pace
✧ And my first trampoline class! Where I, alas, twisted my knee twice. It was giving me some pain the next day, but it’s feeling a bit better now. Oddly it doesn’t seem to have affected my ability to run at all, so I am very thankful for that.

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


I think it’s safe to say we’ve all experienced the calming effects of exercise at one point or another. You’ve had a stressful day at work, you’re in a foul mood, you can’t imagine adding one more thing to your day, but you force yourself to go for a run or lift some weights or do some yoga and suddenly the cloud of doom hanging above your head has dispersed. It should be no surprise that exercise has as much of an effect on the mind as it does on the body, and yet discovering the degree to which this is so is eye-opening.

In Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Dr. John J. Ratey explores this connection and offers us a look at just how beneficial that daily workout really is. The book is a mix of the scientific and the anecdotal, with explanations of how exercise promotes the growth of important proteins in the brain interspersed with case studies of Ratey’s patients who have suffered from a whole host of psychological maladies. I won’t focus on the neuroscience part of the book because, let’s face it, my psychology degree is over 10 years old and pretty useless and I don’t really understand any of that stuff anymore. But, if exercise has been proven to increase the growth of BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor – a protein that increases the growth of neurons and synapses in the brain) and this protein has been linked to learning, memory, depression, anxiety, dementia, and Alzheimers, to name a few, I am rather convinced to believe that exercise is worth more than feeling like a rock star for being able to do 20 push-ups.

Where the book’s real strength lies for most of us is in Ratey’s telling of how exercise practically cured some of his patients of their psychological ills. Ratey is quick not to dismiss the importance of medication – he is not one of those pseudo-scientists who would claim that all you need to do is think positively – but he very strongly encourages his patients to incorporate exercise into their therapy. For some, it is not that exercises cures anything, but that it gives them (and us) control over something when they may otherwise feel a complete loss of control. Of panic disorders Ratey writes, “By doing something other than sitting and worrying, we reroute our thought process around the passive-response center and dilute the fear, while at the same time optimizing the brain to learn a new scenario.” He goes on to tell the story of a woman in the midst of a painful divorce, fearful of losing her kids and feeling like she “couldn’t stand up for herself or accomplish anything.” She initially tried, and quit, Prozac, then began adding aerobic exercise to her routine at Ratey’s recommendation. Although her circumstances didn’t change drastically, her outlook and response to it did. The increased movement allowed her feel active, rather than passive, she no longer worried constantly, and she began to reengage with other areas of her life.

Much of the book is filled with anecdotes like this and to do a comprehensive review, I would need to list many of the examples cited for cases of depression, ADHD, hormonal changes, and addiction. Ratey even uses his own mother to illustrate the effect of exercise on aging. Always an active and involved woman, it wasn’t until a hip break at the age of 86 slowed her body down that her mind also began to slip away. Suffice it to say, these examples are worth reading and will make you want to get up, put on your sneakers, and get out the door not so you can have abs of steel, but so that you can think clearly, breathe calmly, and be happy.

On the one hand there is some temptation to take a skeptical stance and see this evidence for exactly what it is – anecdotal – yet that would be a disservice to what Ratey is attempting to show here. His argument is that if exercise can work, why not try it? There may not be as much quantifiable evidence for exercise as a psychological salve, but if qualitative evidence leans in favor of exercise as a remedy for ailments in both the body and the mind, we owe it to ourselves to take it a bit more seriously and discover exactly what it can do for us. Our thinking of exercise as something we do to ourselves needs to change to become something we do for ourselves. It’s not about being an athlete or being first or last picked in PE or yearning after a number on the scale. It’s about doing what we can to get the most out of every moment of this life. True, this is something that I’ve long believed, but I’ve never been more doubtless of this than I am after having read this book.


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