Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

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Did you know you can beat stress, lift your mood, fight memory loss, sharpen your intellect, and function better than ever simply by elevating your heart rate and breaking a sweat? The evidence is incontrovertible: aerobic exercise physically remodels our brains for peak performance.

In SPARK, John Ratey, MD embarks upon a fascinating journey through the mind-body connection, illustrating that exercise is truly our best defense against everything from depression to ADD to addiction to menopause to Alzheimer’s. Filled with amazing case studies (such as the revolutionary fitness program in Naperville, Illinois, that has put the local school district of 19,000 kids first in the world of science test scores), SPARK is the first book to explore comprehensively the connection between exercise and the brain. It will change forever the way you think about your morning run.

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

3 Responses to Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

  1. John V. Forrest says:
    133 of 137 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Fascinating, Enjoyable Read, June 1, 2010
    By 
    John V. Forrest (SAN DIEGO, CA United States) –

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    John Ratey is a Harvard psychiatrist who subspecializes in the clinical use of exercise in mental diseases. In Spark he examines clinical and lab research in neuro-hormones, the chemical soup that determines how well our brain works.
    The front plate quote by Plato says it all,” In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.” (To this I’d like to add good nutrition, sorry Plato.)
    This book has many interesting stories together with the technical information. It is a quick, enjoyable read.
    We feel good when we exercise because it allows the brain to function at its best. Muscle building, cardiovascular conditioning, reducing stress and tension are secondary. Our society and its conveniences have made it difficult to get enough physical activity. We now have to work at it.
    The Naperville School District (19,000 students) west of Chicago has redesigned its P.E. system. All students participate in P.E. classes which develop cardiovascular fitness. In class students use heart rate monitors to gauge their degree of exertion. The only games played are ones with high levels of sweat like three-on-three basketball. Students are taught to encourage and support each other. The results have been dramatic: 10% of the number of overweight children found in other school districts; only 3% of students in Naperville are overweight. In an international study of 230,000 students those from Naperville were sixth in math (first in the U.S.A.) and first in science, ahead of Singapore, China, Korea and Japan. To confirm that the fitness program is key a study compared test results after P.E. class with results several hours later. Scores were much higher right after the fitness class, findings which confirmed prior animal studies. Vigorous exercise makes your brain work much better especially right after the exercise but also longer term.
    Naperville is an upper middle class community where many parents are scientists or engineers. Titusville, Pennsylvania is not. It is a failed factory town north of Pittsburgh where they copied the Naperville P.E. program beginning in 2000. Test scores went from below state average to 18 percent above. Since 2000 there has not been one fist fight in the junior high school. They were common before.
    A share of the 2000 Nobel Prize was given to a Eric Kandel who demonstrated that practice (piano, vocabulary etc.) caused neurons to grow new branches and made branches get larger and better connected to adjacent neurons. A neuro-chemical, BDNF, has the same effect plus it causes new neurons to form from stem cells and protects neurons from decay and death. Exercise elevates BDNF levels throughout the brain. Other beneficial body and neuro-hormones also increase during exercise. In summary, exercise increases alertness and motivation; it encourages new connections between neurons; it causes new neurons to form. Adding a complexity to exercise with things such as yoga, Pilates, tennis, or martial arts is even more effective than simple exercise.
    Exercise has been studied in patients with depression, stress, anxiety, attention deficit, addiction, menstrual and menopause problems. In general exercise has outperformed standard drug therapy in each of these conditions. That’s not even taking into consideration the considerable side effects and cost of medications.
    It’s been well documented that Alzheimer’s disease incidence is much lower in regular exercisers (50% less). Animal studies have shown exercise effects in models of Alzheimer’s and Parkinson’s where findings in the brain were significantly reversed. Mental exercise is equally important. An epidemiologic study in Minnesota has followed an order of nuns who stay very active. When one died at age 85 of a heart attack she was found to have severe Alzheimer’s disease at postmortem exam. But she had tested in the 90% percentile on cognitive tests shortly before her death. Severe pathologic Alzheimer’s due to her genetic makeup had no effect on her life. Billions of dollars are being spent on genetic and pharmaceutical cures for this devastating disease, but we already know that a combination of diet, exercise and vigorous mental activity will prevent it.

    Ratey’s exercise prescription:

    Aerobic – Four times a week; 30-60 minutes at 60-70% of maximum heart rate (220 – age = theoretical maximum heart rate)

    Strength – Twice a week with weights or resistance equipment.

    Balance and Flexibility – Twice a week for thirty minutes. Yoga, Pilates, Martial arts, dance are possibilities.

    In general more is better, harder is better, with another is better.

    N.B. Interval Training (e.g. 30 second bursts of maximal effort several times…

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  2. Tarek Tabbaa says:
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The medical evidence that supports your workouts, November 11, 2016
    By 
    Pete

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    I purchased this book in the Kindle and Audible versions. I wish it had been available in the whispersynk audio version. I’m 68. I cycle, hike and most recently began rebounding (mini trampoline). Spark provides me with all of the medical justification for working my butt off at this age. Since I have been lucky enough to retire and live in an area prevalent with outdoor activities I have made exercise my number one job. I have friends who motivate me but I make a point or have developed the practice of doing an hour or more of vigorous exercise every day. I can attest to everything that Dr. Ratey documents in terms of my own experience. I’ve had surgeries for age related issues but recovered quite easily. I seem to be in basically good health. I get my flu and pneumonia shots and take meds for type two diabetes, and cholesterol, so my point is to say I am following my doctors care, but with my regular exercise I’m doing great. In other words, laughter and excercise really are the best medicine.
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  3. Anonymous says:
    2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    A Fantastic Book for Anyone Interested in Neuroscience, December 10, 2013
    By 

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    This review is from: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Paperback)
    Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain is a wonderful book written by Dr. John J. Ratey, a prominent professor at Harvard Medical School, and writer Eric Hagerman who has published many articles in magazines such as Popular Science. Ratey and Hagerman provide a book that finally explains why exercise is an important activity that can make humans feel good and increase their overall well being. I thought the book was very well put together and it kept me hooked from the start.
    The book begins with Ratey and Hagerman presenting a case study of a school system in Illinois that has implemented a unique type of Physical Education curriculum that focuses on improving the overall health of enrolled students. By performing team-building physical exercises such as rock climbing, relay running, and swimming, students condition their bodies and minds. The school also helps students feel less self-conscious about their physical abilities by having them compete against themselves. For instance, instead of having the students run and race against each other they challenge students to beat their previous running times. After implementing this system, administrators noticed an increase in standardized test scores throughout the school district. Compared to before the institution of the Physical Education program. The authors then move on to explain how exercising can enhance learning from a unique scientific perspective: exercise can make neuron’s dendrites branch out according to research being conducted. In addition, Ratey provides the reason why and how exercise can mitigate stress and improve the mood of patients with depression by increasing endorphins. Ratey and Hagerman then complete their study with how exercise can help drug addicts regain self-control and learn self-discipline by abiding to a strict exercise regiment. The authors conclude the book with how exercise can help aging people maintain neural plasticity and amplify their memory and learning through their old age.

    I thought that the book was well written and it was easy to understand. It had me hooked from the start. I thought that beginning the book with the Illinois School System case study was an excellent idea and provided the framework and evidence for the rest of the cases to build on. The case study also helped put into perspective how important exercise can be not only to adults but also to children. I also liked how the book used very simple terms and explained in depth what a scientific term meant if it were used so the reader could understand. By explaining scientific concepts in depth it let people with even no scientific background enjoy the book and understand the overall message. For instance when describing the function of neurotransmitters, the authors use the analogy of neurotransmitters being like radio waves from one neuron to another. When the authors described the function of an inhibitory neurotransmitter such as GABA, they suggested it was like signaling a stop signal from neuron to neuron or to an effector cell/organ. From a neuroscience perspective, I enjoyed the exciting new research that is being conducted and how the authors presented the new concepts. For example, the authors stated that the presence of brain-derived neutropic factors (BDNF) acts like neuron fertilizer, and causes dendrites to grow and branch from neurons. They also talked about how BDNF can encourage long-term potentiation by making more ion channels open, thus causing a stronger voltage change and therefore signal. Reading the book really “sparked” my interest in the topic and I would enjoy learning more and maybe conducting laboratory researching in the future about the subject as it is a newly discovered concept.

    All in all, I believe that Spark was an expertly written book that helped me to gain better understanding of the connection of exercise and enhanced brain health. It also helped to trigger my interest in new and developing neuroscience concepts and fields which I hope to learn more about in the near future. I recommend this book to anyone with an interest in neuroscience or even exercise. Anyone person with an interest in neuroscience will be captivated from the start.

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