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"Exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” John J. Ratey, M.D., SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008)
Reboot Your Brain with Exercise
A few days ago I was talking with an acquaintance, an accomplished older lady, and mentioned that I was writing an article on exercise and the brain. “I do the New York Times Crossword Puzzle every morning,” she told me proudly. Believe me, I was impressed. That puzzle has been called the “bitch mother of all crosswords,” especially the Saturday version. New research shows that she could prime her brain to tackle the puzzle by taking a walk beforehand.
I learned that from John J. Ratey’s book SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (Little, Brown, 2008). Dr. Ratey, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, would likely have congratulated her for doing the Times Puzzle, and then briefly explained how regular physical exercise makes and keeps the brain sharp. “In my view,” Ratey writes in the opening paragraph of SPARK, “this benefit of physical activity is far more important—and fascinating—than what it does for the body.”
Ratey begins the book by telling how a ground-breaking PE program helped make the 19,000 kids in a suburban school district outside of Chicago perhaps the fittest in the nation—and first in the world in science. This remarkable and uplifting case study, he says, is the spark that inspired him to write the book.
Zero Hour PE
The core idea of the program is exemplified by “Zero Hour PE,” a new physical education class scheduled before first period. “The object of Zero Hour was to determine whether working out before school gives these kids a boost in reading ability and in the rest of their subjects,” Ratey explains.
There are many other aspects of the overall program, of course, but the main thing to understand is that this is not the typical team-oriented curriculum. The emphasis is on fitness instead of sports. The kids are encouraged to find an activity they enjoy: Eighteen choices are offered, ranging from rock climbing to aerobic dance. The idea is to find something that allows a student to experience success. Grades are based on effort rather than skill. “Any kid who wanted an A could get an A, if he worked for it,” a teacher explained. “Any time you got a personal best, no matter what it was, you moved up a letter grade.”
The kids learned about getting fit—and how it would make them perform better in the classroom.
To make a long story short, it worked. The kids got fitter and smarter.
First, the kids in Zero Hour were sent off to their first period class in a “state of heightened awareness” and prepared to learn. At the end of the semester, they showed a 17 percent improvement in reading and comprehension, compared with a 10.7 percent improvement for students who opted to sleep in and take standard PE class.
After seventeen years in place, the “New PE” curriculum produced eye popping results district wide. On a test designed to compare students knowledge levels from different countries in math and science (TIMSS), district students finished sixth in math—and, as noted earlier, number one in the world in science. WOW!
Two of the coaches gave the shorthand explanation: “In our department, we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them.” Obviously, both did their job extremely well.
Ratey enthusiastically devotes the rest of the book to explaining how and why exercise improves brain function.
Let’s begin with a perhaps surprising connection. Body mass and aerobic fitness are closely connected to academic performance. A study related by Ratey explores the neuroscience behind the correlation. Testing showed more electrical activity in the brains of fit kids, indicating that more neurons were being recruited for a given task. More of their brain cells are being called upon to learn, and solve problems. “In other words,” Ratey explains, “better fitness equals better attention and, thus, better results.”
Further testing also showed that when fit kids make a mistake they slow down to avoid making another mistake. The ability to learn from experience, Ratey says, relates to executive function, which is controlled by the prefrontal cortex. “Learning from our mistakes is profoundly important in everyday life, and [this study] shows that exercise—or at least the resulting fitness levels—can have a powerful impact on that fundamental skill,” he writes.
The case gets better, more concrete and convincing, as Ratey continues to lay out and explain the evidence for the physical exercise-brain connection.
Miracle-Gro for the Brain
“In addition to priming our state of mind,” Ratey relates, “exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain’s potential to log in and process new information.”
It is now clear that the brain is flexible or malleable; neuroscientists call it plastic. Everything we do, think, or feel shapes our brain. “[The brain] is an adaptable organ that can be molded by input in much the same way as a muscle can be sculpted by lifting a barbell,” Ratey tells us. “The more you use it, the stronger it becomes.”
Let’s look at some of the ways exercise modifies and improves the brain. Much of the research, according to Dr. Ratey, is new, published within the last decade or so.
For starters, exercise has a powerful influence on the neurotransmitters—serotonin, norepinephrine, and dopamine—which serve as messengers in the brain, regulating and balancing brain function. The neurotransmitters are essentially traffic cops. Psychiatrists have been using drugs which focus on the neurotransmitters for a long time and many people are at least vaguely familiar with them. “I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitter,” Ratey writes. That’s a metaphor, of course, and not precisely accurate. What exercise actually does is it “balances [the] neurotransmitters—along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain.”
Over the past 15 or so years, Ratey also tells us, a family of proteins loosely called factors has “dramatically changed our understanding of connections in the brain, specifically how they develop and grow.” The most prominent is brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF). “Whereas neurotransmitters carry out signaling,” Ratey explains, “neourotropins such as BDNF build and maintain the cell circuitry—the infrastructure itself.”
A massive amount of research, says Ratey, has shown that BDNF “nourishes neurons [brain cells] like fertilizer.” (This is amazing.) When researchers sprinkle BDNF onto neurons in the lab, the cells spontaneously sprout new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning—causing Ratey to think of BDNF as “Miracle-Gro for the brain.”
This is exciting stuff, but what really sparked Ratey’s interest was, in 1995, coming upon a one-page article in the journal Nature reporting that, in mice, exercise “elevates Miracle-Gro throughout the brain.” For years, he had been a vocal proponent of using exercise for many psychological issues, based on what he had seen in his patients and what he knew about neurotransmitters. “But this was different,” he writes. “By showing that exercise sparks the master molecule of the learning process, [researchers] nailed down a direct biological connection between movement and cognitive function. In so doing, [they] blazed the trail for the study of exercise in neuroscience.”
“[That finding] laid the foundation for proving that exercise strengthens the cellular machinery of learning,” Ratey writes. “BDNF gives the synapses the tools they need to take in information, process it, remember it, and put it in context.”
Exercise alone, however, won’t make anyone “a genius.” As one neuroscientist put it, “With learning, you have to respond to something in a different way. But something has to be there.” Exercise creates an environment conducive to learning, but you must give your brain a new challenge. So, the older lady I referred to at the beginning of this piece was wise to tackle the New York Times Crossword Puzzle every morning. Like muscle cells, brain cells that aren’t used are lost.
“If we don’t use the newborn neurons,” says Ratey, “we lose them.”
The “notion of use it or lose it” for brain cells, he says, is well established by research involving mice and cats. Animal studies are easier, of course, because researchers can dissect the brain and count brain cells. Human brains are harder to study, for obvious reasons.
As evidence with people, Ratey cites the 2006 study we wrote about recently on this site, were magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) showed that aerobic exercise actually reversed the brain shrinkage that often occurs in older people. (Aerobic Exercise Pumps Up Your Brain, 182, Aerobic Exercise category)
He, of course, refers back to the very fit Chicago-area students who ranked # 1 in the world in science. As noted earlier, the coaches explained the process succinctly: “In our department, we create the brain cells. It’s up to the other teachers to fill them.”
So, it’s up to you to do the exercise and challenge your brain. OK, but what’s the best exercise program?
Building Your Brain
“Any motor skill more complicated than walking has to be learned, and thus it challenges the brain,” Ratey explains. So your options are many. Here’s an overview of what he suggests, with some general guidelines to help you map out an exercise plan that suits your needs. In case you’re wondering, strength training is part of the plan.
“The best advice,” says Ratey, “is to get fit and then continue challenging [yourself]. If you get your body in shape, your mind will follow.” He adds, “We know with certainty that having a normal body mass index and a robust cardiovascular system optimizes your brain.”
Dr. Ratey recommends doing some form of aerobic activity six days a week; four days on the long side at moderate intensity, and two on the short side at high intensity. On the short, high intensity days, he suggests adding some form of resistance training; these days should not be back to back, to allow time for recovery.
The long, moderate days can be walking. This will increase blood flow, and, with that, says Ratey, “comes the chemical cascade that produces serotonin, brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and other nourishing molecules.” Work up to an hour, increasing the pace as your fitness improves. When you feel ready, you can jog on two of these days. Don’t overdo, however; because the moderate aerobic days help you recover from the hard days.
“More and more, research suggests that taking antioxidants in pill form may not be helpful—and may actually be harmful—but most people don’t realize that aerobic exercise is a way of creating your own supply of antioxidants inside the cells themselves,” Ratey tells us. What’s more, he says, “The repair response to exercise leaves your neurons stronger.”
Hard days should be at 75 to 90 percent of your maximum heart rate, the rate just below the point when your muscles start to burn. “Somewhat hard” is another way to describe this pace; it should not be so hard that you can’t maintain the pace for an extended period of time.
Hard days, Ratey warns, should only be added after you have developed a base of fitness. Consult your doctor, if you have concerns about your readiness. When you are ready, the benefits are surprising—even to Dr. Ratey.
“If you want to really challenge yourself,” says Ratey, you can mix in short interval sprints. “One of the key differences between moderate and high-intensity exercise,” Ratey writes, “is that once you get closer to your maximum, and especially when you get into the anaerobic range, the pituitary gland in your brain unleashes human growth hormone (HGH).”
“HGH is the body’s master craftsman,” Ratey explains, “burning belly fat, layering on muscle fiber, and pumping up brain volume. Researchers believe it can reverse the loss of brain volume that naturally occurs as you age.” Interval training is doping Mother Nature’s way.
He continues: “Normally HGH stays in the bloodstream only a few minutes, but a session of sprinting can keep the level elevated for up to four hours. In the brain, HGH balances neurotransmitter levels and boosts the production of all the growth factors I’ve mentioned….It gets into the very cell nucleus and switches genes that crank up the mechanisms of neuronal growth.”
Dr. Ratey confesses that, although he has exercised continuously throughout his life, interval training is new to him. He learned about “the magic of HGH” and sprinting while researching this book. “Two days a week,” he relates, “I started including a handful of sprints during my treadmill runs, and let me tell you, they hurt. Just writing about it makes me cringe a little, but it was well worth the effort. After one month of this business, I lost the final ten pounds I’d been after for years—it peeled right off my midsection.”
Twice a week (and no more than two days), he now does “just twenty minutes of jogging, interspersed with five sprints of twenty to thirty seconds each in which I run as fast as I can.”
(Again, he warns those who are out of shape or have health concerns not to jump into this kind of training.)
Pumping Iron and HGH
I promised that we’d get to strength training. “It’s difficult to get rats to pump iron,” Ratey writes tongue-in-cheek. That being the case, there’s very little research on how it affects the brain.
There is good news, however.
“One factor clearly affected by strength training is HGH,” Ratey reports. A recent study found that “doing squats doubled HGH levels compared with running at high intensity for thirty minutes.” He opines: “I think this will turn out to have important implications for exercise recommendations.”
It’s telling, I believe, what Ratey himself does: “Weights plus crunches and balance exercises two times a week.” Two other days, he does 40 minutes on the elliptical trainer; and finally, two days of 20 minutes on the treadmill with intervals. So, he challenges his body—and his brain—in a variety of ways.
Summing up his regimen, he says: “I’m doing everything I can to keep my prefrontal cortex, and everything it’s connected to, pumped up.”
That’s my plan as well. How about you? Are you doing all you can for your body and mind?
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