John Ratey changed my life.
As an athlete and coach, I had felt the connection between body and mind – for me, there was never truly a divide between the two. Body and mind were part of the same synchronous unit. But it was not until I read Dr. Ratey’s book, “SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” that I began to fully understand the relationship.
Thankfully, I came upon that understanding when I desperately needed it.
In 2013, a host of professional and relationship stressors fell upon me at the same time. I was overwhelmed. On a particularly challenging day I skimmed a book which had been sitting on my shelf for a few months. It was SPARK.
After reading the intro, I was hooked. I took the book to the treadmill and flipped to the chapter titled “Stress.” Though in the past I had intuitively used exercise as a way to de-stress, I assumed the effect was primarily psychological. Dr. Ratey’s work opened my eyes to the physiological benefits that occur in the brain alongside exercise. It was truly remarkable.
That moment – forgive the word choice – sparked my extensive study on connections between exercise and the brain. It changed the way I thought and behaved, and ultimately inspired me to apply to Harvard University for grad school.
From there, I founded the Good Athlete Project and have used exercise and sport as a vehicle for meaningful education. I have traveled the world speaking, presenting, and working with students and educators to better understand and implement movement in their lives.
John Ratey changed my life.
Dr. John Ratey is an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and the one of the world’s foremost experts on Neuropsychiatry. We had the distinct privilege of talking to him on the Good Athlete Podcast (Episode 70)and learned even more about the exciting science that everyone needs to know.
1. Take the “Magic Pill”
If the benefits of exercise could be turned into a pill, then every pharmaceutical company in the world would be clamoring for it. Doctors would prescribe the pill to everyone, regardless of age, gender, or preexisting conditions. The health benefits of exercise are as conclusive and wide ranging as anything of which scientists are aware.
On the surface level, there is the obvious connection between exercise and aesthetics. One can immediately recognize and appreciate physical fitness in oneself and others. Just below surface level exercise enhances cardio respiratory function, enhanced nervous and muscular system efficiencies, and a boosted immune system.
One step beyond that we find improvements in mood, focus, wakefulness and an assortment of cognitive and affective benefits. Exercise has been shown to combat anxiety and depression – truly, our mental health is influenced by the way we move our bodies.
Again, if one were to wrap these benefits up into a single pill, it would fly off the shelves. But pills come with side effects, right? Right. The side effects of exercise include a happier, healthier, longer life. exercise might make you sleep better, pay closer attention to your nutrition, and feel a routine sense of accomplishment. Though side effects may vary.
Why is exercise so inclusive? Why is it such a “magic pill”? Because in this moment, in modern society, sedentary lifestyles have moved exercise into the unique position of intervention – movement is no longer part of our natural environments. rather than part of our natural environment. We take breaks from busy days as students and professionals to move their bodies in hope of accomplishing these effects. What exercise is really doing, what movement along the course of a day would accomplish in an ideal situation, is replicate a more natural state of being human. Our bodies were built to move. In this way, exercise is less a magic pill than an antidote to the sedentary modern lives we are all living.
It is so effective because it is at the very core of who we are.
2. Get Plenty of Vitamin C: Connection
Every human being on the planet shares one thing in common: we are embodied. Those bodies may have different characteristics and abilities, but they are all living, breathing organisms which were built over thousands of years to move and move well. That universal truth of humanity leads to the recognition that exercise has the potential to connect us.
At the Good Athlete Project, we recognized it from the start. Basketball is basketball whether we were working with teams in Chicago, Boston, or Haiti. A game exists that allows people to move their bodies in specific ways, to share a purpose and compete as a group. Movement, training, exercise, sports all have the potential to lead to genuine human connections.
Dr. Ratey recognizes the ability of exercise to connect people in training groups. All around us are running groups, walking clubs, tennis partners, yoga classes, squash teams, golfing buddies… the list goes on.
He notes that one need look no further than CrossFit or Orange Theory to see just how powerful the bonds of connection through movement can become.
He tells a story of how a group of people recently got together to share Thanksgiving in suburb outside of Boston – no one at the table knew each other a mere eight weeks prior. They belonged to the same CrossFit gym. They showed up initially to get healthy, but began to show up consistently for each other.
But it’s not all just fun and games, connection plays a powerful role in health and wellness through a lifetime. Connection supplements the amazing effects of exercise to compound the positive impact. Connection makes people feel good. Connection through exercise makes people feel great.
3. Aim for the ‘Best’ Kind of Exercise
Once professionals, educators, and students find out about the potential power of exercise on brain function, they usually want to know how. “How do I do it?” they’ll ask. Just as often we hear “what is the best kind of exercise for the brain?”
We have an answer.
From the godfather of the topic, the man who SPARKed a generation of educators bringing exercise back into the school day, here is the definition we all should be using.
The best type of exercise is “something you can do with others, outside, that demands a lot of your attention,” he adds that the bonus here, especially if the goal is to make this a continued practice, is to make it FUN.
That sums it up neatly. Educators, it is now on us to do two things: first, create a system of education that includes the sort of exercise Dr. Ratey recommends; second, incorporate that sort of exercise into our own lives.
Take up the challenge. Let’s do this for the students, and for ourselves. Eat well, sleep well, MOVE well, and we’ll have the change to live well – which includes being the best versions of ourselves for young people.