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Monday, June 17, 2019

Review: Spark

Spark is John Ratey's book about exercise and how it impacts the brain. It's a pretty old book, but is still worth reading because there aren't actually that many books about how physical exertion affects how your brain works. John Medina's Brain Rules, for instance, mentions it as important, but not the physiological reasons your brain works better after exercise, and how much exercise is actually enough.

One of the repeated themes in this book is that the medical establishment used to think that exercise was bad for you. Even now, it's an uphill battle for physicians to prescribe exercise for patients. The book covers (in compelling form) a high school in Illinois which managed to reduce obesity to 3% of the student population while increasing student school performance in standardized tests by 14% through the introduction of a daily PE lesson. What distinguishes this book is that the PE lessons aren't the traditional PE classes, but highly focused on aerobic and cardio exercises that gets the kids moving all the time while in class. The classes even hand out HRMs to the students and issues grades by how hard the kid is pushing themselves! The author points out that traditional PE lessons focused on team sports (basketball, soccer, etc) are actually terrible for encouraging exercise: the kids who got picked last, for instance, get an immediate discouragement, and worse, many of these sports have a bunch of kids who are just sitting on the sidelines instead of actually getting physical exercise. So if you hated PE in school, it's because your teacher was just doing it wrong!

Then Ratey goes into the various mental disorders like depression, anxiety, addiction, and even PMS and aging, and talks about how exercise helps those disorders. (Note that he leaves out stuff that's truly degenerate, like Parkinson's, Schizophrenia, etc, though he does mention that exercise seems to retard the progress of Parkinson's and Alzheimer's) He further discusses how much exercise is needed (and once again reminds the reader that the National Guidelines are set deliberately low because the medical establishment is afraid that the real recommendations will scare most Americans away from even  starting to exercise, so 20 minutes a day isn't even close to the optimum dosage!), and how high intensity work differs from low intensity exercise. (Basically, the pituitary gland emits HGH, which reshapes the body --- the author describes how his final ounces of belly fat only disappeared after he added high intensity exercise to this regime)

This is an astonishingly good book, full of details about the various pathways through which exercise shapes your brain. You might get the impression that exercise solves all health problems, and you might not be far wrong. Maybe my frequent mantra (often said in jest) that "cycling solves all problems" isn't that far from the truth!

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