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on 22 May 2008
Excellent book and it provides us with another very powerful reason why we should exercise. Anyone who has ever exercised on a consistent basis will attest to the benifits and now this new research makes it even more important that we develop an exercise program that we can enjoy and that has the power to lift depression, make us more sociable, grows more brain cells, improves our mememory, keeps dementia at bay and so on. In an era where psychiatrists are keener than ever to prescribe anti-depressants that often have the most horendeous side effects its great news to know there is a better way to help ourselves. In many ways the whole concept makes perfect sense but when Ratey provides the research to support the ideas then we can easily see why it is so.
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I've read a lot about the brain in the last decade, and I thought this book was the most helpful summary I've seen of what to do differently. The thinking person is the person who aerobically exercises regularly.

Spark is an excellent summary of the brain research during the last decade or so that has added to our knowledge of how regular aerobic exercise stimulates better and more effective mental activity. Dr. Ratey considers the impact of such exercise on school-age children . . . and adults with stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficits, hormonal changes, and aging bodies. He also recommends a general exercise regime that seems to optimize what we know today from these studies.

The essence of the book can be found in the observation that optimal brain functioning requires plenty of blood, the right nutrients, a balance of body chemicals designed to help the brain operate, and an ability to grow new cells and connections in the brain. Each of these elements is helped by regular aerobic exercise. The results are often measurable within a few weeks.

So if you thought that aerobic exercise was simply about looking and feeling good, you're wrong. It's also about thinking well and being able to learn. There are longevity and other quality of life benefits as well . . . including reduced incidence of disease and less chance of dementia.

The book also explores that you don't have to do a tremendous amount of exercise to get most of the benefits.
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This is a decent book with an optimistic message. We can alter our brain growth, chemistry and function by the simple expedient of moving ourselves and doing some exercise. The exercise will boost our physical and mental effectiveness, and counteract, or prevent entirely, our tendencies to be anxious, down, depressed, irritable, poor concentration or "hormonal". Exercise will boost the function of our brains and our bodies to our own and our family's, friends' and colleagues' benefits.

Exercise does this by boosting BDGF and rebalancing the levels of sertraline, norepinephrine (noradrenalin) and dopamine and by helping it get the right balance of excitatory and inhibitory traffic across synapses. The microscopic effects lead on the good macroscopically observable (psychological) effects we can feel and observe. Oh and the exercise is helping your body develop well too.

By the time you have read this book you will have come to realise that exercise is a GOOD THING for your brain and your body. As animals we are meant to move, and we feel better when we travel a certain distance each day under our own efforts.

The real question is does the author establish his case fully? I think mostly he does, but we are taking a lot on trust here. It is obvious in the text that at times the author is referring to specific papers (as he should be in a text making large claims as this one does). The corresponding references are not given so we have to take the author's assertion and we cannot check the references for ourselves. So we are having to take the facts presented on trust...although the author does come across as trustworthy. The lack of references does make for faster reading, but as the book is not long they could have been given.(..or maybe the modern way would be to put the links on a website?)

The second potential drawback of this book is that exercise comes across as a bit of a panacea, which it isn't. I know this book is written as advocacy, but a bit of perspective and review wouldn't go amiss. There's an element of preaching in the book which is within tolerable limits.

The basic thesis of this book is that mental dysfunction is often a reflection of our sedentary and stressed lifestyles and that seems a reasonable proposition. The idea that thinking is a motor act, and intimately related with movement is plausible. The idea that exercise will help a lot of people with mental health problems to get better is one that I hope will become more widespread with time. It offers many people a way out of mental illness that is entirely self help, drug free and readily available. I hope the ideas of this book Spark many of us into action.

I recommend this book, and acting on it. It lost a star for the lack of references and slightly preachy style.
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With Eric Hagerman, John Ratey has written a book in which he explains -- in layman's terms (to the extent that is possible) -- how physical exercise can "supercharge [provide a `spark' to] mental circuits to avoid or overcome stress, sharpen thinking, lift mood, increase memory...and much more." Obviously, these are all highly desirable results to achieve. Alas, many children as well as adults are out of (physical) shape, do not eat properly, and continue under severe stress to meet their obligations. The implications of what Ratey explains and recommends should be of special interest to young adults, their parents, school administrators, teachers, and coaches as well as to business executives who are responsible for the performance of those whom they supervise.

Here are some of the questions to which he responds:

What are some of the most common misconceptions about "the brain-body connection"?

What in fact is true?

How can aerobic exercise physically remodel our brains for peak performance?

Why is physical exercise the best defense against addiction, aggression, ADD, menopause, and even Alzheimer's?

What are the most significant revelations of a fitness program sponsored by the Naperville (IL) public school district in which more than 19,000 children participated?

Why should such a program (with necessary modifications) be made available to other school children?

In the absence of such a program, what can parents do to increase their children's physical exercise? What sacrifices (if any) must be made to accomplish that?

At a minimum, how frequently should we exercise...and for how long?

What are the benefits to be gained even from minimal exercise?

All of Ratey's observations and recommendations are research-driven, supplemented by his own personal experiences. He seems to be on a mission (one that is commendable) to do everything he possibly can to broaden and deepen public awareness of the consequences of obesity, lethargy, and indolence but also, more to the point, to provide reassurance that even a modest increase in physical exercise can have substantial benefits, not only in terms of improved health but also increased achievement and consequent pride in the classroom as well as in the workplace...indeed in every realm of human life.

Those who share my high regard for this book are urged to check out Ratey's A User's Guide to the Brain: Perception, Attention, and the Four Theaters of the Brain and John Medina's Brain Rules: 12 Principles for Surviving and Thriving at Work, Home, and School (Book & DVD). It is worth noting that everything that Ratey recommends is consistent with the various "rules" that Medina identifies and discusses, notably #1 ("Exercise boosts brain power"), #7 ("Sleep well, think well"), #8 ("Stressed brains don't learn the same way"), #9 ("Stimulate more of the senses"), and #12 ("We are all natural explorers"). How simple it seems: Eat right and get lots of exercise and sufficient rest. If you do, you will reduce stress and nourish your curiosity. To many of us, the obvious is often invisible until we are enlightened by others such as John Ratey and John Medina.
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on 9 November 2012
An excellent book, well written and thoroughly backed up with details of recent scientific research, this work by John Ratey describes the beneficial effects of exercise on the brain.

It explains how regular vigorous exercise, such as short, hard, stints on an exercise bike will actually create new brain cells: this is very useful if you are past your peak, as it will help you stay young mentally and physically. For the young, exercise has measureable educational benefits, helping children to learn much better.(As a personal aside from me, exercise has been shown to delay the onset of dementia, although lots of social contact is apparently best for delaying dementia).

I rate this book very highly due to its important message for those interested in staying at their best mentally, definitely in my top 10 most important self-improvement books.
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on 30 November 2010
Though the message of this book is important, it does not take a book to tell it. Save your money and read this:

"Exercise is good for the body and the brain at any age."


This is an annoying read, endless anecdotes and reports of reports, a sort of neverending mush of the same message. It has a breathless style which makes me think of the poorer self-help books, though to be fair this is better than your normal self help book.

Annoyingly they speak of aerobic exercise as if everybody knows that that is. And guess what? "Aerobic exercise" is not in the index or glossary!

Save your money, read this:

"Exercise is good for the body and the brain at any age."
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on 8 March 2014
The first section of this book deals with exercise and anxiety. Inspiring, interesting and has made me run faster, or at least try harder. There is little doubt that anxiety increases levels of adrenaline and the best way to cope with increased adrenaline levels is to exercise. The effects are not just in the mind, but help alleviate the physical problems associated with stress

Section two considers depression. This is less inspiring. The last thing a depressed person wants to do is go for a run. Nonetheless, exercise can help in depression, in some cases. However the Dr Ratney finds himself unable to abandon the psychiatric model sufficiently to make sense of the evidence. Yes getting fitter builds resilience and that helps depression. But if depression is seen as extreme exhaustion, then how does making a tired person run help them recover? Walking definitely helps but whether it is good to go for a run whilst exhausted is debatable.

As Dr Ratney delves further into the psychiatric model, the arguments get weaker, ADHD, OCD and all the other ICD acronyms make no sense psychiatrically and even less sense when you try and put an exercise model onto an already confused framework.

If you experience anxiety, read the relevant chapter. Initially I was encouraged that this man might be a truly enlightened doctor of the mind, however in the face of complex mental health conditions, he retreats into a standard psychiatric position. The result being that I cannot recommend this book as whole heartedly as I might otherwise have done. Nonetheless there is still a lot of gold in it, and definitely worth the read

Conflict of interests ;-)
-Mood Mapping: Plot your way to emotional health and happiness
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on 29 August 2009
This book really makes so much sense and was an enjoyable read. Links in well with 'Why love Matters' by Susie Gerhardt

With reference to the one star review about lack of reference in Spark, all the references are available on John Ratey's website under resources, there are a lot of them!
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on 24 May 2013
I found the book very compelling. It's written well and I learnt a lot. I would be giving it 4/5 stars, but really, a book on the evidence that exercise is beneficial with no references to the actual research papers?

I think publishers need to update their thinking here. People want to be able to follow up the evidence, they know how to use pubmed etc. I want to follow up some of the ideas in the book, or go convince other people, but without the references I can't.
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on 1 February 2015
Neuroscientists have just begun studying exercise's impact within brain cells. Ratey points out the effect stress has on our lives and how toxic levels of stress can erode the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain and chronic depression shrinks certain areas of the brain. Exercise, he suggests unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that can reverse this process, physically bolstering the brain's infrastructure. In fact, he says, 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. Go for it!
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