This is another oldie but a goodie and it has been a few years since I’ve read it so I will do my best to summarize the main points (while leaving out much of the medical jargon). If it interests you, I would highly suggest reading it. If you have worked with me for awhile you probably have heard me talk about some of the details in this book before.
‘Spark’ was written by Dr. John Ratey who is (or at least was at the time of writing the book) a professor of psychiatry at Harvard medical school. This book is a review of the research on how aerobic exercise affects the brain.
For most people I’ve worked with the reason they begin an exercise program is because they believe achieving some physical outcome such as losing weight or gaining muscle will make them happy. This book is a great eye opener that the true benefit of aerobic exercise is how it affects the brain.
The first idea that Ratey discusses is that aerobic exercise causes the brain to produce a substance called brain derived neurotropic factor (BDNF). This factor helps maintain and grow the connections in the brain. The research clearly shows if you exercise right before you learn a difficult subject, try to learn a language or even learn to play an instrument you can significantly learn faster and retain more of what you learn. It has been scientifically proven people who routinely exercise before learning perform better on tests. For those of you who are parents this should be an eye opener if your children are having trouble with specific subjects in school.
The next big topic of the book and really the reason for me writing this review is Ratey describes how exercise improves mental health. People who aerobically exercise ON A REGULAR BASIS suffer less from depression, deal with stress and anxiety better and are generally just happier than people who don’t. It also helps people recover from addiction and deal with the symptoms of withdrawal. The book goes into the physiological mechanisms by how exercise helps these issues. To summarize it essentially comes down to regulating the brain’s neurotransmitters which are generally out of whack during these mental health disorders. No one is saying to go off medication for these disorders if you are currently taking anything but the research is clear that exercise is a great tool to help control almost all mental health issues.
So here’s the really good news. All these psychological benefits have nothing to do with the physical results. The learning and mental health benefits happen regardless of how fit you are, what you weigh, how much muscle you have, or what you look like in your swimsuit. The physical results are all beneficial side effects of exercising regularly and the benefits come from the level of exertion. Different levels of exertion provide different benefits. The book goes into percentages of heart rate for aerobic exercise but doesn’t go into much detail about anaerobic (high intensity) exercise or strength training although there are great benefits to those kinds of training as well.
The take home message is right now is the most important time to keep up your fitness routine. Also, there are many more important reasons to exercise besides how it makes you look with your shirt off. Although, there is nothing wrong if it makes you look good naked too.