Book Review: Spark by John Ratey – The Book That Saved My Life

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

By John J. Ratey, MD (2008)

Two summarizing quotes:

“Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” pg. 245

“If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow.” Pg. 247

_____________________________________________

I am not one to claim very often that a movie, book, or meme ‘saved my life’ – but this one did.

As a long-time believer in exercise having a positive impact on academic performance (and health, of course), I picked up Spark with interest in validating my long-held belief. As an educator, I was interested in the first two chapters that focused on the case study conducted in a Chicagoland suburban school district and the impact of exercise on learning and growing the brain. The study led to a complete overhaul of class schedules, policies, and practices ­– and ultimately, better attendance, higher achievement scores, and overall student success.

While this study excited me as an educator and school leader, in the remaining chapters Ratey provides anecdotes, evidence, and insights into how exercise can have a positive impact on stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging.

In 2008, I had been living for a year in a perpetual state of “I don’t know what’s wrong with me.” I could not see the toll that stress was taking on me. We had moved across the country the previous year – right before the real estate market crashed and the recession hit. I didn’t particularly enjoy my new job, we were not satisfied with our children’s school, and I was facing a few health scares.

Reading stories and hearing how consistent aerobic exercise made such a difference in the lives of Ratey’s patients, I began to not only admit that I was struggling with stress, anxiety, and depression – but I also realized that if I didn’t take these factors seriously, I’d never make it through.

While Ratey doesn’t advocate for total elimination of all medications to treat psychological and mental conditions, his work proves that exercise can often be a critical component of decreasing or stopping medication altogether. As someone who is not a fan of oral pharmaceutical medication, his approach appealed to me.

While I hadn’t been a total couch potato, I began exercising daily. What a difference it made!

Life became manageable – for a while.

Taking on a more demanding job, I couldn’t maintain my exercise routine. This led to more stress and an exponential increase in anxiety and depression.

But in the back of my mind, I remembered what I’d read – the science and the stories behind Spark. And, although I couldn’t act upon it perfectly – and for a time relied on medication to manage, I somehow knew that I could be and would be ‘okay’, especially when I could situate my life to re-commit to regular exercise. [I want to be very clear that I am not implying – nor does Ratey – that medication can or should be replaced with exercise in all cases, but that it can prove to be extremely effective in many.]

Ten years have passed since I first picked up John Ratey’s work – as an intellectual, professional exercise. My life has taken many twists and turns since then and I, thankfully, do not face the same external stresses I did then. But now, I carefully consider the stress level of any professional or personal engagement and how it will impact my ability to exercise, sleep, and eat well before agreeing to it.

Through many painful years and even with the pleasure of being self-employed, the knowledge and understanding I found in Spark has given me strength and courage – and hope.

If you’re looking for a book that provides both scientific explanations and motivational inspiration for consistent exercise – I highly recommend Spark.

Do you have a book or movie that saved your life? 

20 comments

  1. Thanks for the book review Janet! I’m going to get this from the library tonight. A book that saved my soul when I was a young wife and mother was Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It put me back in touch with my creative side and allowed me an outlet for everything I was dealing with at the time.

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  2. My husband suffers from chronic depression (and so do a number of family members) He finds that consistent exercise makes a significant difference to his state of mind – he still needs a small low dose of medication, but manages on a lot less than he would need without the exercise.
    #MLSTL and I’ve shared on my SM 🙂

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    • Leanne – so good that your husband found a system that works for him. It is so important for our mental health to create a framework that works personally and professionally. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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  3. I wonder what it will take for me to really commit to daily exercise. I don’t doubt the data…but have yet to get it into a daily habit. Yes, I feel better when I’ve spent time moving. Yes, I sleep better. Yes, I feel less guilty eating. And still, if something is not planned with someone else to be accountable to (even if it’s just a class the instructor expects me to be at) , I don’t do it. I’ve yet to make myself accountable to me!

    Thanks for sharing the book and you’re own journey. #MLSTL

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  4. Hi Janet I totally agree with the concept that exercise and any form of movement helps reduce anxiety, stress and even depression. I know that if I’m feeling stressed or anxious I go for a run or do a workout and after I feel alive. Sometimes I don’t feel like doing it and that can be the problem for many of us – starting – but if we just push through the ‘I don’t feel like it’ after 5 or 10 minutes we can feel the benefits. Thank you for sharing your review with us at #MLSTL and enjoy the rest of your week. xx

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  5. I’m looking for the book this afternoon!! Sounds exactly what I need to read at this time in my life. I am also planning to take a walk through our local arboretum sometime this weekend and very much looking forward to moving through nature. Will pin to #mlstl board for future reference – and to share the message with others 🙂

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  6. You had me with the two quotes at the beginning of your post. I especially love this line: “If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow.” I am a huge advocate of the benefits of physical activity for both mental and emotional health. I hadn’t thought much about it in terms of brain function, but it makes sense. Thanks for sharing this book recommendation. #MLSTL

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    • Christie, glad the quotes resonated. Like you, I’ve always been an advocate of physical activity but this book certainly gave a much fuller picture of how important it really is. Thanks for joining the conversation.

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  7. Hi Janet! How wonderful you found this book when you needed it. May we all be that fortunate. I have been doing daily exercise for nearly 40 years! (yikes, that sounds old!) but I can’t blame a book for it–I blame my dog. That and my choice to stop smoking back in my early 30s. I KNEW I needed something to replace that morning cigarette and coffee so I started walking the dog each and every morning for 2+ miles. And it took. I can’t IMAGINE a day going by without walking. And if I even think about not going, Kloe is there staring at me. My husband Thom goes with me but most of the time it is just me and Kloe. Once you do it long enough it becomes a habit and then it is harder not to do it than it is to do it. The key is to find something you LOVE to do. Whatever we do, we much keep moving! ~Kathy

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    • Kathy – I just found this comment in my blog spam folder. I totally agree that once we find something we LOVE to do we’ll keep doing it. For me, I’ve found that variety makes it work for me (particularly during the winter) – I have ‘favorites’ by season. I was just riding my bike and thinking back to how I was so recreationally active when I was younger, then the convent years interrupted that – I kept busy, which meant movement but let go of so many activities I love. Then with kids — their activities kept me busy. So I’m tapping into my favorites again: biking, skating, ice skating, swimming — and I love to walk. For me, variety is the spice of life – I just know I need (and want) to move. The weather has been perfect biking weather for the last few weeks so I’ve averaged about 8-15 miles per day. Feels great! As always, thanks for sharing your thoughts and joining the conversation.

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