I recently had the pleasure of meeting John J. Ratey, MD. He is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an internationally recognized expert in neuropsychiatry. He has published 11 books in 17 languages and with the book “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” Dr. Ratey has established himself as one of the world’s foremost authorities on the brain-fitness connection. I’ve mentioned him in another post.

I love sports and fitness and I was looking for a connection between them and learning. And then I found it. Dr. Ratey agreed to meet me, but his condition to meet me was that I had to read “Spark” first. I immediately bought the book and downloaded it on my Kindle.

It was cloudy, windy and cold, really cold that morning in Cambridge, MA. I walked from a meeting at Harvard to his office, in a beautiful house. I arrived early and did not think twice to ring the bell and ask for fifteen minutes of warmth inside before our meeting. I waited for around ten minutes inside, in a living room, taking notes and going through the questions to ask him. Then, an energetic and enthusiastic man arrived, and I had no doubt that he was Dr. Ratey.

He is clearly an advocate for exercising. I am too, but he has scientific and proven reasons to believe so. Dr. Ratey has been studying the impact of exercise on the brain for years. He started to share brain science behind the power of exercising with me.

He mentioned that worldwide studies and science support exercise for relieving symptoms related to attention deficit disorder (ADD), obsessive-compulsive disorder (OCD), anxiety, depression, addiction, and aging. Exercise unleashes a cascade of neurochemicals and growth factors that physically bolster the brain’s infrastructure.

The brain responds like muscles do: growing with use, withering with inactivity. The neurons in the brain connect to one another through “leaves” on treelike branches, and exercise causes those branches to grow and bloom with new buds, thus enhancing brain function at a fundamental level.

Exercise increases levels of serotonin, norepinephrine and dopamine, important neurotransmitters that traffic in thoughts and emotions. You’ve probably heard of serotonin and maybe you know that a lack of it is associated with depression. What you may not know is that toxic levels of stress erode the connections between the billions of nerve cells in the brain, or that chronic depression shrinks certain areas of the brain.

Dr. Ratey’s research also had an impact on K-12 education. Schools that included any kind of physical activity in their curricula also saw a drop in discipline problems. He explains it: “As you are turning on the brain, specifically the prefrontal cortex, that breaks the impulses. It’s not because kids are burning the energy, though people usually say that. Moreover, they are more motivated, cooperative and less anxious and depressed.” Children who exercise also show better results in math, according to one of his studies. Exercise is also good for learning. 

The social aspect of exercising is also an important aspect to consider. When kids do an activity together, there is a clear decrease in bullying. Dr. Ratey explains: “When you exercise, your oxytocin increases, which is known as the bonding hormone. So, not only do you have more of this hormone but also you are more willing to bond with people. This means that exercise makes you more loving, agreeable and altruistic as well.”  

As an example, he mentioned Crossfit as a group activity. Humans are social animals; we have the drive for connection. And the secret sauce of Crossfit is the human connection, when you are challenging and supporting each other. The feeling of “togetherness” is powerful, and it also increases your self-esteem. Think about training after for months and being able to do your first pull-up. Now, imagine that with your crew cheering for you!

Practicing handstand at Moss Beach in Half Moon Bay

In a nutshell, you should exercise because:

  1. It improves learning ability and grows brain cells
  2.  It alleviates stress, anger, anxiety, and depression
  3. It increases your focus and self-control
  4. It reduces the risk of age-related disorders such as Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s, and other forms of Dementia
  5. It makes you more social
  6.  It increases your self-esteem
  7. It also makes you happier.

What are you waiting for? You can run, do Crossfit or do whatever you want. The best benefits come when you exercise for 45 min, but even three minutes of jumping rope can spark your brain! Let’s move!