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on January 9, 2008
This book explains in clear terms the role exercise plays in our mental processes. Moving our muscles produces proteins that play roles in our highest thought processes. Ratey says, "thinking is the internalization of movement." He illustrates this with the story of the sea squirt that hatches with a rudimentary spinal cord and 300 brain cells. It has only hours to find a spot of coral on which to put down roots or die. When it does put down roots, it eats its brain. According to Ratey only a moving animal needs a brain.

He begins with the value exercise has for the learning process in high school students: improved academic performance, alertness, attention and motivation.

He cites studies that say we can alter our mental states by physically moving. He said depression is the leading cause of disability in the U.S. He then presents a chapter where depression is relieved in case studies by exercise.

Among the areas Ratey covers are: stress, depression, ADD, and aging. This book is a great motivator for exercise.

However, Ratey's work was preceded by Glenn Doman's. Doman advocated exercise for brain injured children in the 1950s when the only 'treatment' was to institutionalize them. He later started a `super babies' program. Both the educational and medical establishments attacked and marginalized Doman's work.
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VINE VOICEon January 21, 2008
Our doctors always say to get more exercise. We always yawn and say of course; we've heard it all before. And then we are mediocre in our follow up. After reading Spark my entire viewpoint has changed. Exercise is a master key to brain functioning. Cholesterol and other system problems caused by lack of exercise are a bit ambiguous since we often can't directly feel them until we manifest some disease. Brain functioning is something else entirely. We can feel an almost immediate change after aerobic exercise. After reading Spark I definitely have become a six day a week exerciser. I need my brain functioning as well as possible, and the data in this book has made a believer out out of me.
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on June 1, 2010
John Ratey is a Harvard psychiatrist who subspecializes in the clinical use of exercise in mental diseases. In Spark he examines clinical and lab research in neuro-hormones, the chemical soup that determines how well our brain works.
The front plate quote by Plato says it all," In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection." (To this I'd like to add good nutrition, sorry Plato.)
This book has many interesting stories together with the technical information. It is a quick, enjoyable read.
We feel good when we exercise because it allows the brain to function at its best. Muscle building, cardiovascular conditioning, reducing stress and tension are secondary. Our society and its conveniences have made it difficult to get enough physical activity. We now have to work at it.
The Naperville School District (19,000 students) west of Chicago has redesigned its P.E. system. All students participate in P.E. classes which develop cardiovascular fitness. In class students use heart rate monitors to gauge their degree of exertion. The only games played are ones with high levels of sweat like three-on-three basketball. Students are taught to encourage and support each other. The results have been dramatic: 10% of the number of overweight children found in other school districts; only 3% of students in Naperville are overweight. In an international study of 230,000 students those from Naperville were sixth in math (first in the U.S.A.) and first in science, ahead of Singapore, China, Korea and Japan. To confirm that the fitness program is key a study compared test results after P.E. class with results several hours later. Scores were much higher right after the fitness class, findings which confirmed prior animal studies. Vigorous exercise makes your brain work much better especially right after the exercise but also longer term.
Naperville is an upper middle class community where many parents are scientists or engineers. Titusville, Pennsylvania is not. It is a failed factory town north of Pittsburgh where they copied the Naperville P.E. program beginning in 2000. Test scores went from below state average to 18 percent above. Since 2000 there has not been one fist fight in the junior high school. They were common before.
A share of the 2000 Nobel Prize was given to a Eric Kandel who demonstrated that practice (piano, vocabulary etc.) caused neurons to grow new branches and made branches get larger and better connected to adjacent neurons. A neuro-chemical, BDNF, has the same effect plus it causes new neurons to form from stem cells and protects neurons from decay and death. Exercise elevates BDNF levels throughout the brain. Other beneficial body and neuro-hormones also increase during exercise. In summary, exercise increases alertness and motivation; it encourages new connections between neurons; it causes new neurons to form. Adding a complexity to exercise with things such as yoga, Pilates, tennis, or martial arts is even more effective than simple exercise.
Exercise has been studied in patients with depression, stress, anxiety, attention deficit, addiction, menstrual and menopause problems. In general exercise has outperformed standard drug therapy in each of these conditions. That's not even taking into consideration the considerable side effects and cost of medications.
It's been well documented that Alzheimer's disease incidence is much lower in regular exercisers (50% less). Animal studies have shown exercise effects in models of Alzheimer's and Parkinson's where findings in the brain were significantly reversed. Mental exercise is equally important. An epidemiologic study in Minnesota has followed an order of nuns who stay very active. When one died at age 85 of a heart attack she was found to have severe Alzheimer's disease at postmortem exam. But she had tested in the 90% percentile on cognitive tests shortly before her death. Severe pathologic Alzheimer's due to her genetic makeup had no effect on her life. Billions of dollars are being spent on genetic and pharmaceutical cures for this devastating disease, but we already know that a combination of diet, exercise and vigorous mental activity will prevent it.

Ratey's exercise prescription:

Aerobic - Four times a week; 30-60 minutes at 60-70% of maximum heart rate (220 - age = theoretical maximum heart rate)

Strength - Twice a week with weights or resistance equipment.

Balance and Flexibility - Twice a week for thirty minutes. Yoga, Pilates, Martial arts, dance are possibilities.

In general more is better, harder is better, with another is better.

N.B. Interval Training (e.g. 30 second bursts of maximal effort several times during the aerobic sessions causes increase in human growth hormone, a valuable healing and anti-aging substance that normally is at low levels later in life. The author lost his `spare tire' a few weeks after adding this to his exercise regime. Nothing else had worked.)
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on January 9, 2008
Having ready 2 previous books by John : The users guide to brain and Driven
by distraction i was looking forward to reading SPARK. I was especially
interested in learning how John was going to tie exercise with the brain
functioning since i am a strong supporter of exercise and have experienced
its benefits. I knew before reading SPARK that exercise in some way does
make you feel better. But SPARK puts it in perspective from a scientific
point of view. The chapters on Stress and depression particularly caught my
attention since most of us struggle with these 2 issues at some point in
life and again most of us turn to popping a pill to deal with it. If its as
simple as getting on a treadmill or a bike and working out for 30-45
minutes without any side effects, then it seems only logical to do it. The
BDNF (Miracle-gro as John calls it) was a very interesting read for me. I
did had to go back and re-read certain topics as was it too much medical
terms to comprehend in one read. But once i got it, it became permanent and
that's the beauty of this book.
Its simple yet powerful in its message. The simplicity comes from the fact
that "you goto workout ". The power comes from the facts / data that proves
"why you goto workout". Once the reader ties the two together, the message
is very clear and hopefully will remain for a lifetime with the reader.
Today if you look around there is a lot of awareness among people about the
ill-effects of obesity. There are TV programs, advertisements, books about
why exercising is good for you and how it will help you be more fit. But
this is the only books that tells you that exercise will also make your
brain fit along with your body. The brain-body connection is important and
one cannot be ignored over the other.
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on July 2, 2012
A year ago (July 1st 2011), just 24 days away from turning 66, I started reading this book and started walking. The information about what exercise does for the brain and body made me want to give it a try. I started with 15 minutes out the door away and 15 minutes back, then worked up to whatever I could walk in an hour. I was focused on 30 days making it a habit. I walked every day for the first 30, and since then have never skipped more than 3 days in a row. I now walk 1 to 1 1/2 hours almost every day. I have not been sick (not even a cold) since I started (knock on wood) and my blood pressure returned to the level I had in my 20s. In one year I've lost 26 pounds, two sizes, 5 inches off my waist and gained a lot of muscle. I highly recommend reading this book and putting it into action! A few days ago, I decided to mark the anniversary by reading it again. Still a good read and it gave me some new goals! I think I may splurge and get a heart monitor for year two.

I speak mainly from my own experience of adding walking to my life to improve health, but the information in the book about exercise and education, as well as exercise and work performance, is timely and interesting. It should probably be read by anyone involved in education or desiring a more productive workplace.
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I've read a lot about the brain in the last decade, and I thought this book was the most helpful summary I've seen of what to do differently. The thinking person is the person who aerobically exercises regularly.

Spark is an excellent summary of the brain research during the last decade or so that has added to our knowledge of how regular aerobic exercise stimulates better and more effective mental activity. Dr. Ratey considers the impact of such exercise on school-age children . . . and adults with stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficits, hormonal changes, and aging bodies. He also recommends a general exercise regime that seems to optimize what we know today from these studies.

The essence of the book can be found in the observation that optimal brain functioning requires plenty of blood, the right nutrients, a balance of body chemicals designed to help the brain operate, and an ability to grow new cells and connections in the brain. Each of these elements is helped by regular aerobic exercise. The results are often measurable within a few weeks.

So if you thought that aerobic exercise was simply about looking and feeling good, you're wrong. It's also about thinking well and being able to learn. There are longevity and other quality of life benefits as well . . . including reduced incidence of disease and less chance of dementia.

The book also explores that you don't have to do a tremendous amount of exercise to get most of the benefits.
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VINE VOICEon October 1, 2008
John Ratey is well known for his groundbreaking work on Attention Deficit Disorder. He coauthored the book, "Driven to Distraction" with Ed Hallowell. His newest book is "Spark- The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain." I found Spark a fascinating read. Ratey cites dozens of studies that span decades and continents. All point to the same conclusion: exercise, and aerobic exercise in particular, boosts the release of important neurotransmitters and enhances cognitive function. For people with ADD or ADHD, this boost can be life changing. Ratey is not prescribing exercise as the "cure" for attention issues, but he does offer specific examples of people who have used exercise to combat the negative effects of stress and attention problems. Many were able to reduce or eliminate ADD medications, though he clearly states that for some people, a combination treatment of both medication and structured exercise may be best.

Ratey talks at length about the success of a special gym program instituted in Naperville, Illinois. The emphasis is on personal fitness. Students in this area have very strong tests scores and a very low rate of childhood obesity. In other places around the country that have implemented a similar program, standardized scores have risen dramatically. These case studies are fascinating.

"Spark" has inspired me to increase my own exercise routine, and also to institute morning recess at home each day. My homeschooled kids are absolutely loving it and we're finding the morning transitions go much more smoothly when we all look forward to getting outside and moving our bodies! We've been running laps on the driveway (five times back and forth to the mailbox is about a mile), doing calisthenics, playing four square, jump rope, and kickball. My three year old has her own method of jumping jacks that is just hilarious to watch. My daughter who has the hyperactive sort of attention deficit enjoys sprinting before school, and appears to have less trouble focusing after she has been active. I think my next investment will be a basketball hoop!

Everyone knows that exercise is good for the body, but it is high time that we recognize how good it is for the mind. For a child who has attention issues, a solid workout each morning may make a real difference. I'd be skeptical of a drug that claimed to, "supercharge your mental circuits to beat stress, sharpen your thinking, lift your mood, boost your memory, and much more" , but these are very real affects that regular exercise can produce. Not all exercise is equally effective in fighting symptoms of ADD. Read this book to find out how to implement a regimen that will work for you or your children.
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With Eric Hagerman, John Ratey has written a book in which he explains -- in layman's terms (to the extent that is possible) -- how physical exercise can "supercharge [provide a `spark' to] mental circuits to avoid or overcome stress, sharpen thinking, lift mood, increase memory...and much more." Obviously, these are all highly desirable results to achieve. Alas, many children as well as adults are out of (physical) shape, do not eat properly, and continue under severe stress to meet their obligations. The implications of what Ratey explains and recommends should be of special interest to young adults, their parents, school administrators, teachers, and coaches as well as to business executives who are responsible for the performance of those whom they supervise.

Here are some of the questions to which he responds:

What are some of the most common misconceptions about "the brain-body connection"?

What in fact is true?

How can aerobic exercise physically remodel our brains for peak performance?

Why is physical exercise the best defense against addiction, aggression, ADD, menopause, and even Alzheimer's?

What are the most significant revelations of a fitness program sponsored by the Naperville (IL) public school district in which more than 19,000 children participated?

Why should such a program (with necessary modifications) be made available to other school children?

In the absence of such a program, what can parents do to increase their children's physical exercise? What sacrifices (if any) must be made to accomplish that?

At a minimum, how frequently should we exercise...and for how long?

What are the benefits to be gained even from minimal exercise?

All of Ratey's observations and recommendations are research-driven, supplemented by his own personal experiences. He seems to be on a mission (one that is commendable) to do everything he possibly can to broaden and deepen public awareness of the consequences of obesity, lethargy, and indolence but also, more to the point, to provide reassurance that even a modest increase in physical exercise can have substantial benefits, not only in terms of improved health but also increased achievement and consequent pride in the classroom as well as in the workplace...indeed in every realm of human life.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Ratey's A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain and John Medina's Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Book & DVD). It is worth noting that everything that Ratey recommends is consistent with the various "rules" that Medina identifies and discusses, notably #1 ("Exercise boosts brain power"), #7 ("Sleep well, think well"), #8 ("Stressed brains don't learn the same way"), #9 ("Stimulate more of the senses"), and #12 ("We are all natural explorers"). How simple it seems: Eat right and get lots of exercise and sufficient rest. If you do, you will reduce stress and nourish your curiosity. To many of us, the obvious is often invisible until we are enlightened by others such as John Ratey and John Medina.
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on February 25, 2008
I didn't need to read the book to be convinced exercise improves mind, body and soul. I've experienced it in my own life. Thus I have tried hard to convince others that their depression and fatigue are a result of poor dietary habits and failure to launch out of their chairs.

This book provides clear and convincing support for the author's conclusions. While the scientific jargon is scattered throughout, it is very readable, inspiring and just plain entertaining. I literally could not put it down. I took it into my office where my sedentary and overweight co workers are trying hard to incorporate exercise into their lives. Both were very impressed with the book and are more motivated than ever to 'move on' This book will save lives, read it!
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VINE VOICEon December 31, 2012
The premise of the book is quite interesting -- exercise isn't just good for your body, but it is good for your brain. It reduces stress levels, helps increase repair of damage, reduces aging impact, increases your ability to learn. Rather than simply stating it, the authors describe the chemistry in the body, and especially the brain, that is triggered by exercise. The research is up to date, and presented at a high enough level that it is understandable for those without a science background. The book also goes through a number of case studies. Of these, i found those involving school children to be most interesting.

On the positives:
Interesting topic
Well documented
Interesting case studies
Incorporates science

On the negatives:
Incredibly repetitive
As the book progresses the case studies are a bit weaker -- more individual studies rather than group studies, and hence subject to pattern bias
Incredibly repetitive (yes, i said that already). You can pretty much know exactly what every chapter is going to say after the first few, and thus the book really could have been half the size
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