Spark! How exercise will improve the performance of your brain

Image - Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain

author: Mikel Bringas, 

The quarantine has revealed the benefits and necessity of physical activity. The benefits linked to physical health were already known (at the moment perhaps the most important thing is how it affects the immune system: info+1, info+2), but in my opinion the main result can be achieved in terms of mental health. For this reason, the book by John J. Ratey and Eric Hagerman Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain seems to me a highly recommended reading.

The book dedicates some chapters to expose the importance of physical exercise in the treatment of some pathologies such as anxiety, depression, attention deficit or dependencies. Recently, the daughter of some friends of mine was hospitalised for anorexia. Among the measures imposed, she was forced to not do any physical activity. Despite the fact that I am totally profane in the matter and the evident risk of losing weight, I find it difficult to understand the need for such punishment. After reading this book my doubt has grown, because as the book explains, the benefits of physical exercise are usually outside the knowledge of psychiatrists.

But apart from pathologies, it also analyzes the benefits of physical exercise in other circumstances: learning, aging and hormonal changes typical of women in the menstrual cycle, pregnancy and menopause.

This is the main message of the book: “I’ll demonstrate how and why physical activity is crucial to the way we think and feel. Our culture treats the mind and body as if they are separate entities, and I want to reconnect the two.”

Through the following quotes from the book you can understand it better:

“WE ALL KNOW that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why.”

“The real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best.”

“We are born movers — animals, in fact — because we’ve engineered movement right out of our lives.”

“We envision our hunter - gatherer ancestors as brutes who relied primarily on physical prowess, but to survive over the long haul they had to use their smarts to find and store food.”

The sedentary character of modern life is a disruption of our nature, and it poses one of the biggest threats to our continued survival. Evidence of this is everywhere: 65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese, and 10 percent of the population has type 2 diabetes, a preventable and ruinous disease that stems from inactivity and poor nutrition. 

Once an affliction almost exclusively of the middle - aged, it’s now becoming an epidemic among children. We’re literally killing ourselves.

“What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one recognizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains too — physically shriveling them.”

The brain responds like muscles do, growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “ leaves ” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.

Exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”

The mechanisms by which exercise changes how we think and feel are so much more effective than donuts, medicines, and wine. When you say you feel less stressed out after you go for a swim, or even a fast walk, you are.”

Throughout the book, informative explanations of scientific knowledge for layman are offered, as well as the results of many researches and practical experiences. I’d like to highlight the one that took place at Naperville Central High School. What was achieved in that school is classified as a revolution, offering physical activity the space it should have in the educational field. In addition to improving the physical condition of the students, the positive influence on the increase in academic performance is evident.

I’d like to remember another experience. In a trial, a father tried to take custody of his sons and daughters from a mother who suffered from anxiety. The father's lawyer made it known that the mother was not taking Prozac, as may be considered normal. He was trying to show that if she was not able to take care of herself, how would she take care of her children. But what that lawyer did not expect came: John J. Ratey was treating that woman and explained in detail the treatment she was following through physical exercise. I’d love to have seen the lawyer's face!

The relationship between physical exercise and stress is also analyzed, explaining the role it has had in human evolution, and comparing the differences between the stress of our ancestors and our current level and frequency.

I hope we get out of this quarantine well, but remember that if we have mental health problems, physical exercise is our best ally, and this book explains it to you.