A while back I read a book that changed the way I think about exercise. The book is “Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain” by Dr John Ratey and Eric Hagerman.
“Everyone” knows exercise improves your cardiovascular fitness, helps you lose weight and protects you from many illnesses like heart disease, osteoporosis, cancer and diabetes. If you have read health-related articles, you may also be aware that exercise is nowadays a recommended treatment for depression.
What I did not understand, is how important exercise actually is for the optimal functioning of your brain and for your overall wellbeing. It appears that physical activity is a kind of cure-all for human ailments.
John Ratey has put together lots of recent research about brain and physical activity and writes about them in a way that is relevant and accessible to a layman. The book has chapters dedicated to learning, stress, anxiety, depression, add, hormonal changes, addiction and aging.
What makes exercise so important for your brain?
To make a long story short, when we are physically active, our brains produce a protein named brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF or “MiracleGro for the Brain”). BDNF enhances performance of the brain, helping brain cells bind to each other (which is important for learning) and to generate new brain cells. From a more practical perspective, exercise protects us from the corroding effects of stress and helps combat conditions like anxiety, depression, add, dementia and addictions.
My favourite story from the book is about Naperville Central High School’s PE revolution. Students from Naperville High School District 203 (IL) have taken daily fitness classes for 17 years. Consequently, Naperville students are one of the fittest in the nation (only 3% are overweight). But what is even more impressive is that Naperville students are getting smarter. In 2005 Central’s composite ACT was 24.8 (state average of 20.1) and according to international TIMSS score, Naperville students ranked best for their science knowledge in the world.
Not bad. I want this substance that makes you smart!
My personal take-away message from the book is that exercise is a perfect weapon for fighting the stresses of modern lifestyle. It fits me like a nail in the head: am I not a middle aged, nail-biting desk jockey with a computer butt after all? 🙂
P.S. If you struggle with finding motivation to exercise, this book is for you. Grab your copy here!