Harvard’s Dr. John Ratey “Sparks” a Revolution: Exercise Makes You Smart

Harvard’s Dr. John Ratey “Sparks”
a Revolution: Exercise Makes You Smart

By Hope Katz Gibbs

Plato said: “In order for man to succeed in life, God provided him with two means, education and physical activity. Not separately, one for the soul and the other for the body, but for the two together. With these two means, man can attain perfection.”

And so begins Dr. John Ratey’s breakthrough book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why,” says Dr. Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, whose books in addition to “Spark” include “Driven to Distraction,” “Shadow Syndromes,” and “A User’s Guide to the Brain.”

“We assume it’s because we’re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension, or boosting endorphins,” he explains.

“But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best … I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”

Ratey believes that in this age, when we spend so much time in front of our laptops, it’s easy to forget that we are “born movers.”

“Ironically,” he says, “the human capacity to dream and plan and create the very society that shields us from our biological imperative to move is rooted in the areas of the brain that govern movement.”

In fact, he shares, as we adapted over the last half million years, our thinking brain evolved from the need to hone motor skills. “We envision our hunger-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.”

As a result, Ratey insists, the relationship between food, physical activity, and learning is hardwired into the brain’s circuitry.

But here’s the rub.

We no longer hunt and gather, and our sedentary lifestyle poses one of the biggest threats to our survival. Consider these statistics:

    65 percent of our nation’s adults are overweight or obese.

    10 percent of the population has Type 2 diabetes.

“We are literally killing ourselves, and it’s a problem throughout the developed world,” Ratey tells us. “What’s even more disturbing, and what virtually no one realizes, is that inactivity is killing our brains—physically shriveling them.”

Welcome to the Revolution

In his 300-page hardback, Ratey offers 10 chapters to help us reconnect our bodies with our minds so that we can create better, healthier lives for ourselves, and for our children.

He begins with a case study on exercise and the brain, sharing a physical education program conducted in Naperville, Illinois, in 1999—the spark that inspired Ratey to write his book.

It also inspired Katherine Tullie, creator of BOKS Kids, to start an organization that got gobbled up by Reebok International as its newest nonprofit outreach program.


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