Book Review: My Top 4 of Spark

I love my job as Assistant Director of the Fitness & Movement Clinic at FSU- it is exactly what I want to be doing, I have a wonderful group of colleagues and students to work with, and it’s just challenging enough to keep me interested and engaged.

Another reason I enjoy working there- all of my colleagues are focused on the impact physical activity has on both short and long term health.  We were encouraged to read the book Spark– and it has brought a whole new meaning as to why exercise is SO important in our daily lives.

(Fun Fact: This book is also one of the reasons I named my blog “Sparking Health”)


The author- Ratey- uses evidence-based research and ongoing studies to 1)show that aerobic exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants, 2) prove that women who exercise lower their chances of developing dementia by 50%, 3) that exercise actually sparks new brain-cell growth, and so much more.

I’ve selected my “top 4” impressions from this book:

1. “If you’re in good shape, you may be able to learn and function more efficiently” (pg 45)

During a 2007 study on humans, German researchers found that people learn vocabulary words 20% faster following exercise than they did before exercise (pg. 45)

You know that saying: “once you kill your brain cells, they never grow back”? In 1998, researchers found that that is in fact false.  We grow new brain cells everyday- just like the rest of the cells in our body. (pg. 48). Neurons are born as bland-slate stem cells, and need to develop into brain cells that actually have a function in order to survive.  In order for a cell to survive and integrate, it has to fire its axon.  Exercise spawns this process, and the environment exercise creates helps those new brain cells to survive and function instead of die off (pg 49).

You can’t learn difficult material while you’re exercising at high intensity because blood is shunted away from the prefontal cortex (to power your legs, arms, whatever you’re using for exercise) (pg 53).  However, blood flow shifts back almost immediately after you finish exercising. In 2007, an experiment had 20 adults watch a movie and 20 adults go for a 35 minute run. All 40 adults were given a vocabulary test before the their activity, immediately after their activity, and 20 minutes after their activity. The movie watchers showed no change, but the 20 runners improved processing speed and cognitive flexibility after just one workout (pg. 54)

2) “The way you choose to cope with stress can change not only how you feel, but also how it transforms the brain” (pg 60).

Humans are unique among animals in that the danger doesn’t have to be clear and present to elicit a response- we can anticipate it, we can remember it, and we can conceptualize it.  The mind is so powerful we can set off stress just by imagining ourselves in a stressful situation (pg 63).

Exercise is good stress: the stress exercise produces is predictable and controllable  because you are initiating the action.  With exercise, you develop an ability to manage your own stress instead of relying on negative coping mechanisms (drinking, over-eating, etc).

In 2004, researchers in London had 210 participants during their lunch hour take aerobics, lift weights, or do yoga.  They filled out questionnaires  at the end of every workday about how well they interacted with their colleagues, managed their time, and met deadlines.  65% fared better in all three categories on the days they exercised.

3) In Britain, doctors now use exercise as a first-line treatment for depression, but it’s vastly underused in the United States, and that’s a shame.

According to the World Health Organization, depression is the leading cause of disability in the US and Canada, ahead of coronary heart disease, any given cancer, and AIDS.

Benefits of exercise on depression: In addition to the natural good feeling from endorphins, you feel good about yourself, and that has a positive effect that can’t be traced to a particular chemical or area of the brain. If you’ve been feeling down and you start to exercise to feel better, the sense that you’re going to be ok and that you can count on yourself for that feeling shifts your entire attitude (pg 118).

4)Scientists consider addiction a chronic disease because of the way it is wired in the brain to trigger reflexive behavior.  The same changes occur regardless of whether the addiction is to drugs, gambling, eating, etc. Typically, when we learn something, the connections stabilize and the levels of dopamine trail off over time. With addiction (especially drug addiction), dopamine floods the system with each drug use, reinforcing the memory and pushing other stimuli further into the background. Drug-induced type of learned behavior can remain for months or even years after the drugs are stopped, which is why it can be easy to relapse (pg 172)

Exercise effect on addicts = exercise works from the top down in the brain, forcing addicts to adapt to a new stimulus (natural dopamine instead of the drug-induced dopamine) and thereby allowing them to learn and appreciate healthy scenarios.  It’s activity-dependent training, and while it may not provide the immediate rush like a snort of cocaine does, it instills a more diffuse sense of well-being that, over time, will become a craving in its own right. The inoculation works from the bottom-up, physically blunting the urge to act by engaging the more primitive elements of the brain (pg 171).

Spark also addresses the topics of ADHD, Hormonal Changes, and Aging.  It describes the effects exercise has through the many issues of our lives and throughout the aging process.  I highly recommend this book- especially if you are interested in how exercise affects and changes your actual brain chemistry.

Check it out!


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