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?