Imagine you could lose weight… have control over your anxiety and depression… prevent dementia and other debilitating side effects of aging… improve your brain power at any age… all without taking meds or making trips to the doctor.

Well, you can, says John J. Ratey, M. D., author of Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.

Yep, you guessed it. Exercise is the best medicine.

If an inexpensive pill came out on the market that could do all that, with no negative side effects, we’d probably be all over it.

But the word “exercise” can tend to make one recoil. It’s work, after all.

I spent most of my adults years thinking exercise was good for cardiovascular health, maybe losing a few pounds or at least preventing future weight gain, replacing fat with muscle, and that’s about it.

As it turns out, those are probably the least of the reasons you should exercise.

The Mind-Body Connection

Dr. Ratey says “exercise is the single most powerful tool you have to optimize your brain function.” This is based on hundreds and hundreds of research papers published within the last decade.

He has chapters devoted to how exercise helps with learning, stress, anxiety, depression, ADD, addiction, hormonal changes, and aging. I’ll focus on just three of these in this post.

Anxiety: Nothing To Panic About

A group of cardiologists took psychiatrists to task in a 2004 New England Journal of Medicine article for failing to note that exercise is an additional means of treating anxiety.

These doctors said: “Exercise training has been shown to lead to reductions of more than 50 percent in the the prevalence of the symptoms of anxiety.”

Dr. Ratey says there’s nothing wrong with taking medicine, but if you can achieve the same effects through exercise, you build confidence in your own ability to cope.  “Teaching the brain that we can survive is crucial to overcoming anxiety.”

Depression: Move Your Mood

A landmark study in 1999 at Duke University found that exercise worked even better than medicine over the long term.

Dr. Ratey says:

Unlike many anti-depressants, exercise doesn’t selectively influence anything – it adjusts the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signalling.

It frees up the prefrontal cortex so we can remember the good things and break out of the pessimistic patterns of depression. It also serves as proof that we can take the initiative to change something.

Aging The Wise Way

Getting old is unavoidable, but falling apart is not. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging. According to Dr. Ratey:

The major implication is that exercise not only keeps the brain from rotting, but it also reverses the cell deterioration associated with aging.

Here’s how exercise helps keep you going when you’re old:

1. It strengthens the cardiovascular system.

2. It regulates fuel (keeps glucose levels from skyrocketing).

3. It reduces obesity.

4. It elevates your stress threshold (i.e. combats the effects of too much cortisol, which brings on depression and dementia).

5. It lifts your mood.

6. It boosts the immune system.

7. It fortifies your bones. Did you know more women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer? Eek.

8. It boosts motivation by increasing dopamine, which in turn guards against Parkinson’s.

9. It fosters neuroplasticity, which improves your brain’s ability to learn, remember and execute higher thought processes.

Mental exercise is just as important for the elderly. Dr. Ratey mentions an ongoing study of several hundred nuns over the years in Mankato, MN. These nuns challenge their minds constantly with mental puzzles, public debates about issues, keep teaching long past retirement age, etc. Many of them live to be one hundred or more. They all donate their brains to science after they die. Here’s what Dr. Ratey says about one of the nuns:

The interesting thing about Sister Bernadette is that she scored in the 90th percentile on cognitive tests right up until she died, but when her brain was examined postmortem, it showed massive damage from Alzheimer’s disease… In other words, she should have been utterly lost to the ravages of dementia. Yet despite the damage in her brain, she remained mentally sharp.

So what types of exercises are the best medicine according to all these studies? I’ll write a post about that soon. In the meantime, feel free to read the whole book and find out.

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