Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

SparkThis is only the second book I have reviewed on this blog but this one is so important I feel obligated to spread the word. However, it will not be an easy book to review so I hope to do it justice.

Just reading the title of this book is a pretty good indication that it isn’t a book containing exercise programs. Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It is written by John J. Ratey, a clinical associate of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School.

This is a rather dense book stuffed full of scientific research on how exercise enhances not just our bodies but our brains. However, I do think John Ratey makes the science assessable to the layman. The reason I feel this book is so important is because so many people view exercise and being physically fit with the wrong mindset. It is a means to an end: to lose weight and be slimmer. And if they achieve that end goal, they quit. Or they quit before they reach that goal. Either way–they quit. But exercise is so much more than aesthetics. This is something I preach to anyone with the patience to listen to me. Like the majority of people, when I started this fitness journey (about 15 years ago), I did have the primary goal of losing weight and looking better. I had begun that journey many times in the past but like the majority of the population I continually fell off the wagon. I was fortunate to finally discover an activity that spoke to me, that I finally got that “runners high” from. The Firm’s brand of circuit training. I also found morning the most convenient time for me to get in a workout consistently, helping me to form a habit that is so integral to my daily life that my day seems wrong, “off” if I do not start my day with a workout. 15 years later? I still get up and workout every single morning.

I no longer exercise for aesthetic reasons. I do it for the reasons presented in Spark. The reason that every single person out there should exercise every single day. In the science based evidence that is presented over and over in this book (evidence that some people found boring and redundant, according to a small percentage of reader reviews–but I did not have a problem with this at all) exercise is the cure for everything–if we would just do it. And that is the problem! Doctors don’t prescribe it. Patients don’t do it. Exercise improves heart health and blood sugar/insulin (dramatically reducing your chances of ever developing diabetes type 2), strengthens your bones (preventing osteoporosis), it boosts your immune system, it increases joint mobility, it improves lung function, it helps prevent all kinds of cancer. That’s just the physical. The mental is what is really astounding.

The book starts with a case study of Naperville School District that instituted an intense physical fitness program in its high school and saw a dramatic increase in grades, and improved focus and behavior in students. Other studies show how patients with mental illness such as depression and anxiety can be removed from their psychotropic medications once they start regular and consistent exercise. It helps people with ADHD. It helps people recover from addiction. It helps peri-menopause and menopause symptoms. In older adults? It improves memory and prevents dementia.

Let me give a little bit of anecdotal evidence from my own life. When I got out of the Air Force, I was in my late 20s. I quickly became inactive and overweight. This led to severe and chronic back problems that I suffered with for several years. All of that ended when I started working out consistently. In fact, I am going to share something that I cannot in good conscious recommend to anyone but it is a fact. The Firm was very hard for me when I started it and I struggled, but the more I did it, the easier it became. Then my back went out. I cried. I was doing so well! And now I couldn’t move! I couldn’t even stand up straight! Instead of throwing in the towel like I always had in the past, I did what I could. It wasn’t much at first but it was something. At least I was still moving, right? The pain slowly got better and I was back at it at full speed. That’s when I made exercise a daily habit. And for 10 years after that, my back never went out again. Since I’ve passed 40, it has caused me some issues on two different occasions. But it was minor in comparison to the pain I suffered more than a decade ago and lasted no more than a day or two before I was back to 100%. I attribute that to exercise.

Second story is about my youngest daughter. She suffers from a lot of anxiety. She has never taken any medication but when she was a freshman in high school I suggested exercise might help with her anxiety. So she tried TurboFire. She quickly became addicted because her anxiety dissolved when she started her day with exercise. She exercised every single day, in the morning like her mother, until she left for college. She started running, too, and has run several half marathons. When she didn’t exercise, her anxiety would escalate. Exercise helped to keep it in check. Which is what many of the studies cited in Spark proved.

These are just personal examples of how I have experienced the evidence put forth in Spark. So I know from experience that it really works.

What concerns and saddens me about this evidence is that it will be ignored, thanks to Big Pharma. There is so much money in the pharmaceutical industry. Doctors are too quick to write scripts. Patients are too quick to want them (the quick fix they are hoping for). But prescription drugs have side effects, and for many of those side effects doctors prescribe a different RX to counter it. And of course that RX has it’s own set of side effects–it’s a cycle that never ends and continues to line their pockets. So why would they ever want people to learn about a free cure-all with no side effects? They would go bankrupt.

Now, do not misunderstand. I am not against prescription drugs but I do strongly believe they are too quickly prescribed without other, healthy and more effective cures being explored first. Or sometimes if the condition is severe, the drugs can be used to stabilize a patient but then wean the patient off the medication using exercise.

It is the one “drug” that costs you nothing and gives you everything. So why isn’t this something the majority of the population does? I feel it comes down to education–by parents, school systems and the health care system. I work in a field in which I see people who suffer from the disastrous effects eating too much and moving too little every day. How do you make people understand that there truly is a simple way to fix the majority of their ailments? I really don’t know, but this book is a step in the right direction.

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6 responses to “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

  1. I am a mental health provider and have recommended this book, particularly the section on “Rx for exercise” to clients who are and aren’t on medication and it has been so helpful. Thank you for reviewing it here. Your blog is great. I hope Ratey does an updated edition of the book adding more research on the benefits to exercise for the main mental health symptoms people seek help for: mood, anxiety, attention and focus. His recommendations on what style of exercise helps anxiety vs. mood is also helpful and makes sense for people who do and don’t feel better after doing HIIT workouts vs. steady state. .

    • thank you! I am so glad to hear about a mental health provider recommending this book to patients. It could be such a life saver to people in need.

  2. Great review, thank you! I have been regularly exercising for about a year and a half and while I would like to lose weight, I have been trying to shift my mentality to thinking more about how I feel physically/mentally with exercise and eating certain foods rather than the weight loss. I guess it makes sense that this is more motivating because I see the consequences of my food/exercise decisions much more quickly when thinking about how it makes me feel.

    Also – I wanted to mention that I just recently found your blog and I absolutely love it!! I am fairly new to regular exercise and find myself often wanting to read about a new exercise program and dreaming about what I might do next. I find myself reading your blog many times a day. So thanks!!

    • Hi Lee! I’m so glad you found my blog and are finding it helpful. I’m stealing from a great celebrity trainer (Chalene Johnson)–but finding your “soul mate” workout makes all the difference. It can be hard when you hate exercise, but when you finally get that rush from it, it makes all the difference.

  3. For me, this is one of the books that impacted me the most, because I actually implement the recommendations laid out there regarding how much and how often one has to move.
    I was really surprised to find out that we need to work out every day, and include cardiovascular training almost every day. I thought that I was doing pretty well with running some 3-5 km two to three times per week, but Ratey writes here that 30 minutes cardiovascular is a bare minimum and that ideally, we need to extend it to 1 hour. He also advises complementing cardiovascular training with strength training and other types of movements – preferably new patterns of movement like dance or martial arts to stimulate our brain (and here started my journey with different workouts, which you review so nicely here).

    So what I got from this book – we were evolutionally developed to move, and to move a lot. When we move, our body and mind help us to adapt and progress, become more resilient and function at our best. Movement should be an integral part of every day, not just 12 minutes a week (like some new fashionable biohacks suggest), and it’s better we learn to enjoy it, because we were made to move. I started practicing yoga some 12 years ago, but for maybe some last 5 years I felt that yoga needs to be complemented with something else, that it’s not the system that gives you a solution to everything (although many teachers will want you to believe so). Only when I added long hiking (trails of 800-1000 km) and running, I was able to correct some postural imbalances (like pronated ankles) that I had forever. But I had no intention to correct anything – I just noticed that my ankles are strong and balanced now, and I walk differently. Now after the “Spark”, I decided that I need to exercise every day. It’s been about 3 months now, and I feel like I really look forward to workout every day. It’s not something that I need to push through, but I really enjoy now.
    It’s very very important book, it was great to see that you recommend it too.
    Thank you for your site and for sharing your journey with everyone!

    • You’re welcome! It is great when you start enjoying and looking forward to your workouts. Exercise is so important and it is torture when you have to slog through it. I love this book too, for that reason. It really drills home how important moving our bodies every day is. I wish I could get the people I care about to read this book and start exercising.

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