William's Reviews > Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Spark by John J. Ratey
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's review
Jan 03, 14

bookshelves: nonfiction, popular-science, fitness
Read from October 30 to November 03, 2010 — I own a copy, read count: 1

Rating: 3½ out of 5

Exercise is not only good for you, it's even better for you than you ever imagined.

That's the cheerful message of this book, which is stuffed with detailed information on the positive effects, large and small, of physical activity. Anyone looking for motivation to adopt a healthier lifestyle will appreciate Dr. Ratey's exuberance: He appears to be genuinely awestruck by the implications of the research, and from start to finish never ceases to marvel at the long list of benefits that exercise confers.

The book will be of particular interest to those affected by the issues to which individual chapters are devoted: stress, anxiety, depression, ADHD, addiction, female hormonal changes, and aging. But it deserves equally to be read by anyone who isn't physically active, and also by anyone who wants to better understand and maximize the benefits of physical activity. In other words, by just about everyone.

That said, the book has its shortcomings. Writing for a general audience, the author takes the approach of examining a number of conditions (depression, ADHD, etc.) one by one, telling the stories of a few individuals who have benefited from exercise, and then explaining, in more or less simplified form, the science behind the benefits. The human-interest focus and simplification may annoy hard-science types who want facts and explanations, while the technical details -- the roles of brain-derived neurotrophic factor and gamma-aminobutyric acid, for instance -- may be daunting or irrelevant to the less scientifically minded who simply want to know how exercise can help them.

A consequence, too, of this "condition-centred" approach is that the book is somewhat repetitive. Admittedly, there is a sound rationale for the repetition: Different chapters address different afflictions, whose sufferers, it might be imagined, will read only the chapters of interest to them; thus, certain information has to be presented afresh in each chapter. Ratey does a good job of integrating the information as needed, but the effect, for anyone who reads the book in its entirety, is to ply the reader with some information, in slightly varied form, multiple times.

Indefensibly, despite drawing on what must be hundreds of studies, the book includes no citations. (They could have been tucked safely in the back, if the publishers were worried that footnotes would turn off the general reading public.)

That lack is unfortunate, because many of the health claims Ratey canvasses are drawn from small studies, and have to be swallowed with a certain amount of skepticism. To his credit, he is forthright about the sample sizes involved, and prudently says only that "a study showed" some particular result, rather than drawing authoritative conclusions -- although his enthusiasm might easily impel the reader to do so.

In any case, the gist of the book is inescapable and compelling: Exercise is not only good for the body and the brain, it's even better than one could possibly have imagined.

Among its benefits:

It strengthens the cardiovascular system.
It regulates fuel.
It reduces obesity.
It elevates your stress threshold.
It lifts your mood.
It boosts the immune system.
It fortifies your bones.
It boosts motivation.
It fosters neuroplasticity.
It reduces muscle tension.
It builds brain resources.
It improves resilience.

Or, more succinctly: you'll look, feel, think, and function better, live longer, and enjoy better health.

The author's main goal is to convince, persuade, and motivate the reader to be physically active. In that respect, he succeeds admirably. He conveys not only the importance of exercise (and the various benefits of its low-, moderate-, and high-intensity incarnations), but also a sense of the profound satisfaction it can bring.

Even those who already belong to the church of fitness will be impressed to learn from this book what exercise can accomplish, and take it up with even greater passion and enjoyment.
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