A Harvard Scholar's Stand...
Thanks to an introduction
"orchestrated" by a good friend of the
Senior Fitness Association, the renowned maestro David Dworkin -- whose
Conductorcise program is getting older adults around the world moving to
the beat of symphony classics -- we were pleased to begin a correspondence with
Dr. John Ratey. A clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School, John J. Ratey, MD, is the author or coauthor of eight books, including
Driven to Distraction, Shadow Syndromes, and A User's Guide to the
Brain. Today's special issue of Experience! describes Dr. Ratey's new
book Spark which was written with Eric Hagerman, a former senior editor
at Popular Science and Outside magazines.
On Exercise and Cognition...
is a 294-page book on the mind-body connection that cites specific
scientific research to show how physical exercise provides a defense against
mental health concerns ranging from mood disorders, to ADHD (attention deficit
hyperactivity disorder), to menopause-related changes, to dementia. Spark
emphasizes the benefits of aerobic exercise, while acknowledging the value of
nonaerobic forms of physical activity. The American Senior Fitness Association (SFA)
has addressed much of the same research in our Experience! newsletter, as
well as in SFA's Brain Fitness for Older Adults professional education
program. Not only do we concur with Dr. Ratey's carefully considered
conclusions, we also enthusiastically recommend Spark to all SFA members
who serve older adult physical activity participants.
Dr. Ratey graciously granted SFA
permission to quote from Spark in Experience! Therefore, much of
the following material will discuss Dr. Ratey's findings in his own words.
Information on how to order Spark is provided at the end of this issue.
On the Purpose of Spark...
In his introduction, Dr. Ratey
explains his goal in writing Spark:
"What I aim to do here is to deliver in
plain English the inspiring science connecting exercise and the brain and to
demonstrate how it plays out in the lives of real people. I want to cement the
idea that exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental
And that he does! By including dynamic
examples involving his patients and acquaintances -- with their blessings, of
course -- Dr. Ratey has produced a reader-friendly book that is easy to follow
by health-fitness professionals and laypersons alike.
Regarding the issue of learning,
Dr. Ratey provides detail and context:
"Take the cerebellum, which coordinates
motor movements and allows us to do everything from returning a tennis serve to
resisting the pull of gravity. Starting with evidence that the trunk of nerve
cells connecting the cerebellum to the prefrontal cortex are proportionally
thicker in humans than in monkeys, it now appears that this motor center also
coordinates thoughts, attention, emotions, and even social skills. I call it the
rhythm and blues center. When we exercise, particularly if the exercise requires
complex motor movement, we're also exercising the areas of the brain involved in
the full suite of cognitive functions. We're causing the brain to fire signals
along the same network of cells, which solidifies their connections."
He goes on to describe how "exercise
improves learning on three levels: first, it optimizes your mind-set to improve
alertness, attention, and motivation; second, it prepares and encourages nerve
cells to bind to one another, which is the cellular basis for logging in new
information; and third, it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem
cells in the hippocampus."
Dr. Ratey asserts that "you do
have some control over how stress affects you." Referring to the experience of
one of his patients, he notes that "control is the key" and goes on to
"Exercise controls the emotional and
physical feelings of stress, and it also works at the cellular level. But how
can that be, if exercise itself is a form of stress? The brain activity caused
by exercise generates molecular by-products that can damage cells, but under
normal circumstances, repair mechanisms leave cells hardier for future
challenges. Neurons get broken down and built up just like muscles -- stressing
them makes them more resilient. This is how exercise forces the body and mind to
"What's gotten lost amid all the advice
about how to reduce the stress of modern life is that challenges are what allow
us to strive and grow and learn. The parallel on the cellular level is that
stress sparks brain growth. Assuming that the stress is not too severe and that
the neurons are given time to recover, the connections become stronger and our
mental machinery works better...
"Regular aerobic activity calms the body,
so that it can handle more stress before the serious response involving heart
rate and stress hormones kicks in. It raises the trigger point of the physical
reaction. In the brain, the mild stress of exercise fortifies the infrastructure
of our nerve cells by activating genes to produce certain proteins that protect
the cells against damage and disease. So it also raises our neurons' stress
"It all comes back to the evolutionary
paradox that even though it's much easier to survive in the modern world, we
experience more stress. The fact that we're much less active than our ancestors
were only exacerbates matters. Just keep in mind that the more stress you have,
the more your body needs to move to keep your brain running smoothly."
differentiates between normal anxiety and anxiety disorder:
"If you're in a plane that suddenly drops
several hundred feet, you and everyone else on board will be edgy and acutely
concerned -- are we going to make it?
The nervous system stays alert for
a while, hypersensitive to any further turbulence. That's normal.
"But if you worry when there's no real
threat, to the point where you can't function normally, that's an anxiety
disorder. The symptoms crowd your consciousness, your brain loses perspective,
and you can't think straight. Clinical anxiety affects about forty million
Americans, or 18 percent of the population, in any given year and can manifest
in a number of ways. They include generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder,
specific phobias, and social anxiety disorder. They all share the physical
symptoms of the severe stress response as well as a similar dysfunction in the
brain, namely a cognitive misinterpretation of the situation. The common
denominator is irrational dread. The differences are mostly a matter of
Having adroitly defined the varying levels
of anxiety, Dr. Ratey proceeds to explain how physical exercise can play an
ameliorative role in controlling anxiety reactions.
In the treatment of depression, how
does exercise compare to antidepressant medication? Dr. Ratey relates these
"In a landmark study affectionately called
SMILE (Standard Medical Intervention and Long-term Exercise), James Blumenthal
and his colleagues [at Duke University] pitted exercise against the SSRI
sertraline (Zoloft) in a sixteen-week trial. They randomly divided 156 patients
into three groups: Zoloft, exercise, or a combination of the two. The exercise
group was assigned to supervised walking or jogging, at 70 to 85 percent of
their aerobic capacity, for thirty minutes (not including a ten-minute warm-up
and a five-minute cool-down) three times a week. The results? All three groups
showed a significant drop in depression, and about half of each group was
completely out of the woods -- in remission. Another 13 percent experienced
fewer symptoms but didn't fully recover.
"Blumenthal concluded that exercise was as
effective as medication. This is the study I photocopy for patients who are
skeptical of the idea that exercise changes their brain chemistry enough to help
their depression, because it puts the issue in terms that are as black-and-white
as psychiatry can hope to deliver, at least for now. The results should be
taught in medical school and driven home with health insurance companies and
posted on the bulletin boards of every nursing home in the country, where nearly
a fifth of the residents have depression. If everyone knew that exercise worked
as well as Zoloft, I think we could put a real dent in the disease."
Dr. Ratey has much essential
information to share on the subject of exercise and preserved cognitive
health throughout the aging process. Below is just one short excerpt:
"Population studies support the evidence
that exercise holds off dementia. In one, about fifteen hundred people from
Finland originally surveyed in the early 1970s were contacted again twenty-one
years later, when they were between sixty-five and seventy-nine years old. Those
who had exercised at least twice a week were 50 percent less likely to have
On Top of That...
The quotations given above reveal
only a few gems harvested from the rich mine of Dr. John J. Ratey's new book
Spark. Also addressed are the topics of attention deficit, addiction, and
hormonal changes in women over time. Spark offers a thorough rationale
for the mind-body connection between exercise and mental fitness that comprises
a bread-and-butter foundation for the work of SFA health-fitness professionals.
To obtain the book, visit the Mature
Fitness Shoppe, a cooperating agency of the American Senior Fitness Association,
at the Mature
Fitness Shoppe. SFA members, be sure to enter promotion code
SFA08 on the final check-out page to receive your special 10%