by Doug Powell
Dr. John J. Ratey, a psychiatrist, has been studying the relationship between exercise and the brain for over 15 years. He combines neuroscience, physiology, rat experiments, and human case studies to build a compelling, readable, inspiring argument for regular aerobic exercise. For the last couple of years, after competing in triathlons for over 35 years, I’ve been grappling with my commitment to triathlon. At age 70+, I probably won’t be logging any new personal records. I know I should exercise for health, but if I don’t race, what will I use for motivation? This book has taken me from “I suppose I should …” to “I want that!”
In the introduction, he relates a case study about the Naperville, Ill. school district that switched from traditional physical education (PE) classes where most of the students stood around waiting for their turn at bat, or for the ball to come into their area, to a fitness model of various aerobic exercise options and grading based on effort, not achievement. With heart rate monitors for everyone, students could earn the same class grade if their 10-minute mile got their heart rate up to 185 as the student who ran a 7-minute mile at a comparable heart rate. And the exercise could be in the form of square dancing, wall climbing, 3-on-3 basketball, kayaking, or jumping rope. The results were revolutionary. The student population was measured to have an obesity rate of 3 percent, as opposed to the national average of 30 percent. And, test results in math and science improved. Not only that, but those who had their hard classes right after aerobic exercise improved more than those whose hard classes were further removed from their exercise.
It turns out that movement sparks brain development and health. It balances the neurotransmitters, strengthens the linkages between neurons, and forges stronger memories. “As our species evolved, our physical skills have developed into abstract abilities to predict, sequence, estimate, plan, rehearse, observe ourselves, judge, correct mistakes, shift tactics, and then, remember everything we did in order to survive.” One German experiment showed that people learn new vocabulary words 20 percent faster following exercise than before. Experimentation also seems to show that doing different things in your routine grows more neuron type cells than doing the same thing all the time.
And what about stress? Usually, when we talk about stress, it is a bad thing. The author tells us that that is not necessarily true. He gives us a multitude of information about chemical reactions in the body under stress to explain that some stress is necessary for body and brain health. Just like exercise helps the body stay healthy and strong, so the brain needs stimulation to thrive. By combining physical exercise with learning new things, the optimal results can be achieved.
But too much stress, without relief, can and does become harmful. Your brain can actually decrease in size if you live in constant stress for long periods of time without relief. During my working life, a rowing machine saved my boss’ life. After a heated argument about my work, I went down to the fitness room and rowed for a bit until my anger dissipated, my heart rate normalized, and I calmed down. Ratey has other examples and explanations of how the changes occur, and how most often, some stress helps us stay healthy, strong, and smart.
Next, he gives us specific chapters on anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, and hormonal changes in women. Since he practices psychiatry, he doesn’t make statements that aerobics will cure everything for everyone, but he does feel that a combination of traditional therapies and exercise together can help many people regain positive lifestyles and lessen their dependence on drugs to maintain their improved relationship with the world.
Since we all plan on getting older, this book’s next chapter on aging is worth special attention. Basically, all the diseases we associate with aging such as Alzheimer’s, dementia, Parkinson’s, diabetes, can all be attributed, at least partially, to physical and intellectual inactivity. If you want to argue with me, check the book out; the science is there. He recommends a list of steps you can take to minimize the damage for as long as possible. He also talks about how easy it is to get yourself into either a negative spiral or a positive one; either inactivity leading to damage, leading to more isolation, leading to more damage and earlier than necessary death, or on the other hand, a little exercise, leading to feeling better, to getting out more, leading to more social interaction, leading to a longer, happier life.
Remember when we were taught that the brain didn’t grow after a certain age? Remember when we thought that coffee, soda, and wine were liquids that would prevent dehydration? Old understandings are being replaced by newer understandings based on what we can learn from new technologies. In the last 10 years, in which brain research has exploded, we have learned much more about the mind/body relationship. From genetics to FMRI, we are finding out much more about what contributes to a happy, healthy, wise life.
If I’ve “sparked” your interest, you can find this book on BARD as DB97650. But in the meantime, get started. The positive spiral will start as soon as you start. A little will help — more will help more. You could walk, swim, bike, or any other exercise that suits your fancy — as long as it is about 30 minutes of aerobic activity. As your heart rate goes down during your activity of the same distance at the same duration, pick up the pace or find a more strenuous course. Do this six days a week. Perhaps, if we haven’t added an accountability exercise group to Community Events yet, we could do that to help support your intentions. Good luck!