Thursday, June 30, 2011

Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

by by John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman

The author attempts to explain for the layman, but ends up using masses of neurological jargon and acronyms, about the role exercise plays in sharpening our mental processes. Boiling it down to the basics: moving our muscles produces proteins that play roles in neurogenesis and the repair of synapses.  It also helps the production of hormones such as serotonin and norepinephrine that regulate mood.  Therefore, Ratey argues, daily sustained aerobic exercise is a sure cure-all for depression, ADHD, the ravages of aging, raging hormones in menopausal women, addiction, phobias, etc.

He makes his point with study after study, but this certainly could have been a more readable book.  First, as noted, Ratey can’t help using baffling medical jargon like LTP (long-term potentiation, or the ability to attach synapses), BDNF (a protein that strengthens brain cells), cortisol, dendrite, VEGF (growth factor), all of which is overwhelming for the average reader.  Some of it could easily have been skipped to no detriment to the argument.  Second, he then becomes repetitive.  In each chapter, he explains how  studies show that movement elevates these receptors, factors, and proteins; but really, once is enough.  I think the book would have been improved had it had an introductory chapter that showed the hard science, then focused on case studies, for example, only making passing references to the science chapter as needed.  Instead, Ratey seems to think he must explain the biological processes each time. Third, he comes off as a zealot, and he has the unfortunate blinders of a zealot: he recommends, without fail, 45 minutes of sustained aerobic activity four days a week, two days of intensive aerobic activity, with focus on strength training, balance, new skill sets (so karate or yoga rather than just running), and social interaction.  Yes, I’m sure that would be fantastic, but it’s preposterously unrealistic for the average American, let alone one recovering from addiction or depression.  Certainly, Ratey notes often enough that people should start out slow, consult their doctor, and so on, but it’s clear he has no patience for anything but the highest level of activity, and devotes almost no space to developing a slow, reasonable build-up to fitness.  The information is good and the science interesting, and Ratey may be perfectly reliable, but the tone of his book is something like that of a cult member or a car salesman. 

two stars

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