When you think about exercise only as a way to shed those last few pounds, you’re missing the bigger picture says John Ratey, MD in his book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. While exercise has numerous benefits for health and wellness, obviously, we’re also beginning to see how it affects cognitive functioning.

The brain is a muscle like any other. Dr. Ratey claims that exercise impacts the brain in the same way as it would our hamstrings. 

In Spark, Dr. Ratey urges all of us to think of exercise as a prescription for overall health and wellness. He delves into each of the areas of mental health, starting with overall cognitive ability. Using an example from a school in Naperville, Illinois, Dr. Ratey shows how a consistent and intelligent school fitness program has elevated test scores, classroom behavior, and general health for students in the school. It’s not your typical PE program, but the Naperville program of daily activity classes that occur right before a student’s hardest subjects may be part of the reason that the school ranks first in the world  for science test scores.

From that amazing example, Dr. Ratey continues showing how exercise can be useful for treating a number of conditions, from depression to anxiety to attention deficit disorder. For example, individuals suffering from attention deficit disorder get the most benefit from a workout program done early in the day that relies on concentration and focus (such as martial arts). Those with depression could benefit from a walking group or appointments with a personal trainer. When used thoughtfully, Dr. Ratey claims that exercise can sometimes be as effective as pharmaceutical treatments for these conditions.

Spark also delves into stress and the effect of stress on the body. While Dr. Ratey acknowledges that stress is necessary for survival, the amounts of chronic stress in our daily lifestyles are creating ever more problems. Yet again, Dr. Ratey finds that exercise holds the key for helping our body ward off chronic stress. He writes, “At every level, from the microcellular to the psychological, exercise not only wards off the ill effects of chronic stress; it can also reverse them.”

At the end of the book, Dr. Ratey provides his own prescription for exercise along the lines that a little is good, and more is better. The best schedule, he notes, is one in which you exercise six days a week, at varying rates of intensity, for at least 45 minutes. 

Dr. Ratey writes, “The research consistently shows that the more fit you are, the more resilient your brain becomes and the better it functions both cognitively and psychologically. If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow.” By digging into the actual research and the positive biological compounds that are produced as a result of exercise, Dr. Ratey gives a comprehensive view of exercise that will inspire you to grab a pair of running shoes when you’re looking at a big project rather than the comfort food of before.

Have you read Spark? What are your favorite books about exercise and health? 

Image by Josiah Mackenzie via Flickr

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