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

Spark by John J. Ratey
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Jul 23, 2011

liked it
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It's an interesting read and not expensive.
But I was left feeling that this was a slightly partisan sports-motivated view of what is certainly an important issue, so I would seek to balance it with other sources.
It is very worrying that there is no reference list.

p.60 describes a study that compared two groups of shipyard workers, one exposed to nuclear radiation and the other not, and concluded that radiation made that group better able to withstand illness. Obvious thoughts are that nuclear workers are subject to frequent medicals, with a specialist team on hand, so illnesses would be picked up earlier. Also, I suspect they would not get the job unless they passed a more stringent medical. So not statistically unbiased groups in the two cases. On the other hand, I gather from elsewhere that rodents exposed to ground radiation at Chernobyl then show much less susceptibility when they eat contaminated food. These sorts of counter-intuitive results demand the most stringent standards in presentation and discussion.

p.12 and following. Apparently, in a move to improve the teaching of English and Maths, many US schools are reducing physical education. That must make a lot of PE teachers very insecure and keen to justify their profession. At Naperville, the PE teachers get every pupil to run a mile once a week, and those who are behind in academic studies are being encouraged to come in daily for exercise before school. The PE teacher speaks with admiration of a small girl whose pulse rate during running was 187, close to her maximum pulse of 209. All this strikes me as rather dangerously gung-ho, if not backed up with careful analysis (and a reference list).

It is claimed that in the TIMSS exams, Naperville students scored number one in the world. However, on the ACT college entrance exams, a nearby school with a similar catchment profile, students scored 2 points higher than the Naperville students. My 22 years in college teaching rings a warning bell here. If younger kids really were getting a better academic foundation due to sports activity, we would expect to see this improvement carried through in the pre-college years. Maybe exercise is good for rote learning of facts, but works against in-depth analysis. Carry-over of experimental data on laboratory rats, to young humans should be done with a lot of care. One suspects that in hyperactive children, sports can usefully calm them down, but that in academically gifted children, it just tires them out.

Once again on the other hand, Interval Training is recommended later in the book, and my 18-month experience of doing this with a longish walk involving 5 hills which I walk up as fast as I can, has given me great leg muscles and contributed to a weight loss of over 2 stone. I first learnt about this on Dr. Mercola's web-site, but even he seems to like the very extreme use of an exercise bike, rather than hill-walking.

So I do think there is a lot in this argument in favour of exercise, but it has to be hadled more carefully than I think this particular book does.
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