Health and Fitness Information for Mature Adults 

June 3, 2009

Table of Contents

  • A Harvard Scholar's Stand... (Introduction to special issue)
  • On Exercise and Cognition... (The mind-body connection)
  • On the Purpose of Spark... (Plainspoken science)
  • On Learning... (Its three basic levels)
  • On Stress... (Emotional control)
  • On Anxiety... (What's normal?)
  • On Depression... (Exercise versus drugs)
  • On Aging... (Exercise and dementia)
  • On Top of That... (Get all the facts)

A Harvard Scholar's Stand...

Thanks to an introduction "orchestrated" by a good friend of the American 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...

Spark 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 health."

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.

On Learning...

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."

On Stress...

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 elaborate:

"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 adapt...

"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 threshold...

"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."

On Anxiety...

Spark 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 context."

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.

On Depression...

In the treatment of depression, how does exercise compare to antidepressant medication? Dr. Ratey relates these important findings:

"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."

On Aging...

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 dementia."

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% discount.

Experience! readers: Thank you for your interest and questions. Due to the high volume of contacts SFA receives, we cannot respond to individual queries or comments. However, the newsletter does address frequently asked questions and topics of vital interest to our members.

Free SFA basic membership: If you aren't already a member of the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA), just sign up online at There are no fees or membership dues. And, we don't give out our members' personal information to others! When you join SFA, you'll receive our e-newsletter "Experience!" which will bring you older adult fitness news, research, and wellness tips.

Fitness and health professionals: You may distribute copies of Experience! to your exercise clients and patients as a free newsletter service. Copies of Experience! or excerpts therefrom must always ascribe credit to the American Senior Fitness Association (SFA). To fulfill that requirement, include the complete banner (title information at the top of each newsletter) as well as all post-newsletter notes, messages, copyright information, and the SFA logo.
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