Friday, June 20, 2008

Exercise: the spark for your brain

Does exercise benefit your brain?

You bet it does, and if you want to know the many ways it does, get this book: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by Dr. John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman.

“We all know that exercise makes us feel better, but most of us have no idea why,” Ratey writes. “We assume it’s because we’re burning off stress or reducing muscle tension or boosting endorphins, and we leave it at that. But the real reason we feel so good when we get our blood pumping is that it makes the brain function at its best, and in my view, this benefit of physical activity is far more important – and fascinating – than what it does for the body.

“Building muscles and conditioning the heart and lungs are essentially side effects. I often tell my patients that the point of exercise is to build and condition the brain.”

Ratey is a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School. He has put together an wonderfully fascinating account of what goes on inside your head when you exercise.

Ratey describes these almost unbelievable chemical and neurological processes in terms that a lay person can understand. And they make a convincing case that “… you have the power to change your brain. All you have to do is lace up your running shoes.”

For me the most interesting chapter of all was the one on aging. Ratey lists nine ways that exercise keeps you going:

1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.
2. It regulates fuel (glucose).
3. It reduces obesity.
4. It elevates your stress threshold.
5. It lifts your mood.
6. It boosts the immune system.
7. It fortifies your bones.
8. It boosts motivation.
9. It fosters neuroplasticity (keeps your brain growing).

Considering a list like that, why would anyone let laziness keep them from exercising?