Review of "Spark"

By John J. Ratey with Eric Hagerman
Little, Brown, 2008
Review by Kevin Purday on Mar 21st 2009

This is an extremely important book. There is a tendency in western medicine to view humans as either biomechanical objects or as strange beings with an irreconcilable dichotomy between mind and body. This book brings home to us the fact that we are neither. We are a wonderful mixture of body and mind where the former influences the latter and vice versa. In a world in which obesity is becoming an epidemic, the message of this book is literally of vital importance.

The authors are respectively a medical doctor/psychiatrist and a scientific journalist. Their message is simple: we humans developed as creatures for which physical exercise -- and fairly large doses of it -- were an essential part of life. In vast swathes of the so-called developed world, humans no longer have to spend hours planting, tending and reaping food crops or chasing game across the savannah or through the jungle. A quick visit to one's local supermarket can provide us with everything to satisfy our outsized appetite. However, unless we are very fortunate, the price that large numbers of us pay is obesity and all the things that go with it -- diabetes, etc.

The authors provide us with all the latest research evidence to prove that physical exercise, in quite reasonable amounts, helps to keep us fit in ways undreamt of only a decade or so ago. First of all, medical research now shows that physical exercise helps to elevate the level of neurotrophins such as brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) which helps in the repair and growth of brain cells. The old expression 'use it or lose it' is true but it is not true just of the brain -- we need to exercise the body as well to preserve both mind and body.

Exercise helps in just about every situation imaginable. Exercise helps to combat the cortisol that is released in times of stress. Too much cortisol can cause physical damage but exercise plays a vital role in bringing down cortisol levels and thus helps to prevent the damage as well as helping to relieve the psychological symptoms of stress. In situations where anxiety levels are high, where depression looms, where someone is suffering from attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), where someone is trying to break with an addiction, whether it is an addiction to a drug, to alcohol, or to something else, where women are coping with hormonal changes, where someone is facing the fact of aging -- whatever the situation, exercise is of tremendous importance. Never has it been better known that exercise, even of moderate intensity, releases neurotransmitters and neurotrophins that counter toxic chemicals and trigger the production of all the wonderful things that we humans need to build mind and body.

I cannot recommend this book too highly. We humans all too often lead lives where we do too much sitting or spend too much time in front of a computer screen. We too frequently lead lives that are not properly integrated i.e. where our physical, mental/intellectual, spiritual and emotional needs are not well balanced. This book reminds us of the absolutely essential nature of physical exercise. It is a fantastically important book, beautifully written, highly persuasive, and with an excellent glossary and index. My only complaint, and it is a small grumble, is that the book lacks a bibliography. That can be rectified in the book's second edition. It most surely deserves to be so widely read that a second edition becomes a necessity.

© 2009 Kevin M. Purday

Kevin M. Purday has just completed his fortieth year as a teacher and has recently returned to the U.K. after being principal of schools in the Middle East and Far East. His great interests are philosophy and psychology.


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