Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Fertilizer for my brain: Exercise

               Four years ago when I was in my neuroscience for laymen book phase, I read John Ratey's book Spark, and became an overnight zealot, proselytizing the book to family, friends and acquaintances, anyone who would listen – and a few who did not.
                       I still think this book should be on every educator’s shelf, given the first chapter which chronicles the changes exercise makes on students’ learning at a school system in Illinois. Increasingly studies by professionals in pediatrics and sport medicine and neuroscience also emphasize this point. Anyone who is interested in changing the body to change the mind could also find a place for this book.
               Ratey is clinical associate professor  of psychiatry at Harvard, a runner, and a heart -rate monitor devotee. He prescribes exercise the way pharmaceutical companies push pills  -- for everything from improving learning, to handling stress, anxiety, depression, attention deficit, addiction, hormonal fluctuations – and improving the way we age. While at one time or another, I’ve had the need for information on all of the above, as I venture into my 60s, aging gracefully is a chief concern.
               Together with co-author Eric Hagerman, Ratey’s science  writing is easy to follow and well documented. A handy glossary at the back helps with terms. But be forewarned: Ratey is so enthusiastic he goess on and on about the benefits of exercise.  For many readers this could have been a shorter book. A good way to approach it is to read the beginning and then only those chapters that apply to you. That’s probably enough.
               What I love about Spark is that it offers a way to change your brain without drugging it. Not only, Ratey promises, can you increase the number of synapses, those bare tree branches of axons and dendrites, the connections that wire together and fire together, but you can even grow new cells.
Here’s the good news:
                       “For the better part of the twentieth century, scientific dogma held that the brain was hardwired once fully developed in adolescence, meaning we’re born with all the neurons we’re going to get. We can reaarange sysnapes all we like, but we can only lose neurons. Certainly, we can speed up the decline, a point that your eighth-grade biology teacher may have made to scare you away from underage drinking. Now remember: alcohol kills brain cells, and they never grow back.
                       But guess what they do grow back ---- by the thousands.”

               If like me, the eighth grade you was more interested in the cute boy sitting next to you than the neurons in your head that would someday be dead, it’s time to get off the couch and grow some new neurons, a process called neurogenesis.
               Spark tells you how. The secret is something called Brain Derived Neurotropic Factor or BDNF – what Ratey calls Miracle-Gro for the brain. “Whereas neurotransmitters carry out signaling, neurotrophins such as BDNF build and maintain the cell circuitry – the infrastructure itself.”
Ratey describes how pools of BDNF work with other factors that push into the brain during exercise and promote both learning and stem-cell division. I won’t describe it here. If you’re interested, get the book.
                       In the final chapter Ratey tells you how to put the findings in this book into effect in your life.  The bad news (for me) is that interval training – in which you push yourself to the high intensity range for your heart for short bursts  seems to be the most effective in that the closer you get to your maximum, your brain unleashes human growth hormone – also dubbed the fountain of youth.  I tend to prefer my exercise slow, steady and meditative-- walking, swimming laps and practicing yoga.  So adding a little push to my workouts will, well, take some work.
               I’m not sure it’s in my nature to achieve what Ratey describes as the “best” program: aerobic exercise six days a week for 45 minutes to an hour:  4 longer program days at moderate intensity, 2 shorter program days at high intensity. Total six hours a week to feed the brain. But I intend to and can improve. 
Ratey says in this final chapter that he has not discussed non-aerobic exercise because the research was scanty at the time he was writing.  However, Spark was published in 2008 and the last few years have seen a flurry of research on the effects of all exercise – much of it on activities like yoga and Tai Chi.
This doesn’t mean that Spark is dated,  just that Ratey was ahead of the curve. Spark is so relevant it is now being issued in paperback and is available for pre-order at Amazon.

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