Give Your Brain Some Love-Move Your Body
Updated: Sep 6
About 15 years ago, I read a book by now famed author Dr. John Ratey entitled Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. It was one of the first books I read about neuroplasticity and it fundamentally changed the way I viewed learning and the brain.
In the study highlighted in the book, Ratey implemented a carefully crafted exercise program before school at a very low-performing school in Naperville, IL. The students engaged in aerobic activity and measured their heart rate to make sure they got into the "target" zone. Right after their PE class, they went to their intervention class in reading or math. What Ratey found was remarkable. The students' reading and math growth surpassed most of the students at the school, attention improved dramatically, and behavioral referrals dropped drastically.
These findings were replicated in many schools after that. At one school, there was a 66% reduction in off-campus suspensions and a 59% reduction in behavioral referrals from implementing a structured exercise program with a focus on aerobic activity.
The benefits of physical activity are well documented now. Some of the benefits of aerobic activity include:
increase in neurotransmitters such as serotonin, GABA, and dopamine
Increased growth of synaptic connections in the hippocampus = improved memory
better sleep by improving slow-wave (delta), or deep sleep
Improve sleep apnea
reduction in inflammation, including neuroinflammation
increase in endocannabinoids which help modulate our endocrine, immune, and nervous system
reduction of anxiety and depression
activation of the pre-frontal cortex, the home of executive functioning
reduction of amyloid-plaque deposits
Aerobic activity for 30 minutes has a remarkable impact on our brain. Let's start with BDNF, what Ratey refers to as "Miracle Grow" for the brain. BDNF, or brain-derived neurotrophic factor, has many vital roles in our brain and body. It is widely expressed in the central nervous system and the gut. BDNF helps modulate our neurotransmitters so that we have the right amount available for use for thinking, learning, and emotional well-being. It dramatically increases our brain's ability to change, known as neuroplasticity and all learning requires neuroplasticity. It promotes the growth of new neurons and synaptic connections between neurons. It also protects the brain from adverse conditions such as inflammation caused by illness and injury. BDNF is greatly increased during aerobic activity where the heart rate is brought up into the target zone, according to Ratey's research.
Exercise also increases activity in our endocannabinoid system. You probably recognize the root word there-cannabinoid. This system was discovered when scientists were studying the effects of cannabis on the brain and nervous system. As mentioned above endocannabinoids help modulate our endocrine, immune, and nervous system. Increased EC causes changes in our brain chemistry, improving the availability of GABA, serotonin, and other neurotransmitters.
Ratey's work focused on aerobic activity, but walking complex motor movements such as climbing, jumping, running, etc., and strength training all have benefits for our brain function. So, if you want your concentration, memory, mood and focus to improve, get moving!
Ratey, J. (n.d.). Exercise and the brain-the crucial connection. [presenation]. http://www.johnratey.com/files/Exercise%20and%20the%20brain/la%20county%20learning%20FOR%20WEB%201.pdf
Babaei, P., & Azari, H. B. (2022). Exercise training improves memory performance in older adults: A narrative review of evidence and possible mechanisms.
Frontiers in Human Neuroscience, 15. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnhum.2021.771553
Ratey, J. (2019). Can exercise help treat anxiety? Harvard Health Publishing. https://www.health.harvard.edu/blog/can-exercise-help-treat-anxiety-2019102418096