Spark by John J. Ratey

Thursday, February 09, 2012

Title: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain
Author: John J. Ratey, M.D. with Eric Hagerman
Genre: Nonfiction, medical, neuroscience
Publisher: Little, Brown, & Company, 2008
Source: Library
Read for: the husband, who is obsessed with it.

Dr. John J. Ratey explores the effects of exercise on various brain functions, from natural processes like learning and aging to disturbances in brain chemistry such as ADHD, clinical depression, and anxiety disorder. He intersperses anecdotal stories from his own practice with research studies to support them.

I've joked with my husband that we really just need to buy this book, because we have checked it out of the library three times and renewed each time. (It took him two times to read it because he was in school, and then he checked it out again to use a quote for a paper). By the third time we had it out, I decided I should just go ahead and read it. And it was absolutely fascinating, despite the fact that I didn't work out at all that week, therefore plunging me into feelings of guilt.

Ratey's hypothesis is that exercise alters basic brain chemistry, enhancing mental and emotional performance. He discusses the application of this theory in several contexts, starting with an anecdote about a school that utilizes aerobic exercise shortly before difficult classes for kids who need remedial intervention. This school has received incredibly high rankings on international standardized tests, and Ratey believes it is because aerobic exercise increases brain concentrations of BDNF -- a growth factor present in learning and other important brain processes associated with memory. He follows this anecdote with several examples of the positive effects on running and other aerobic exercise in disease processes like ADHD and addiction. I found it interesting that he had examples of people to whom he had made recommendations and seen results as well as more scientific, rigidly controlled studies to back up his results.

While any neuroscience book is susceptible to being bogged down with jargon, Ratey and his co-writer Hagerman keep the writing fluid and comprehensible on layman's terms (I assume. I thought it was pretty clear-cut, and while my husband does have a biology background, he hasn't done much neuroscience beyond basic physiology). He keeps his findings clear and gives his own recommendations for dealing with mental crises, suggesting a target heart rate and amount of time to exercise.

I think we are all aware that exercise is important for a healthy body; this book illustrates the importance of exercise to a healthy mind as well. Anyone with an interest in exercise and/or neuroscience, or especially someone needing motivation to put on their workout clothes and go, will find a great resource in Spark.

4 stars

Warnings: May make you feel guilty for sitting on your butt and eating ice cream.


  1. I think I might just have to read this one!

    1. It's a good one! It's definitely easier to read than put the principles into practice, I am finding, but I learned a lot.


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