How exercise improves brain performance

“Spark: How exercise will improve the performance of your brain” by Professor John Ratey is an inspiring read.  I ‘skim read’ it a couple of years ago but read it again recently as we were discussing it at book group.  Andy Hill (@behypnotherapy) hosts the book group every couple of months and the discussions are fascinating as people bring so much expertise.  Hypnotherapy tends to be a second (or third) career for people, so we had early years specialists, nursing professionals, teachers, university lecturers and a professional athlete in the discussion.

One of the book’s key messages is that physical exercise alters our brain chemistry in a positive way.  We produce more dopamine, serotonin and norepinephrine through aerobic activity.  These neurochemicals reduce cortisol levels, improve signalling between brain cells and promote cell growth in the form of BDNF (a protein which builds and maintains cell circuitry).  Andy had a good metaphor for this. If we think of the synapses between brain neurones as the English Channel, then we are improving the travel routes from Dover to Calais but also improving the infrastructure of the ports so that more information can pass through.

Our brain structure and function are shaped by the way we are interact with our environment.  When we are stressed and anxious the amygdala (which is associated with emotional processing), becomes larger and denser.  When depressed, the hippocampus brain region (which is associated with context and memory) shrinks by approximately 15%. But these effects can be counteracted through exercise and Professor Ratey provides an inspiring chapter on the effects of exercise in reducing cognitive decline as we grow older.

In a way, exercise acts like a brain fertiliser by:

  • improving alertness and motivation
  • strengthening brain cells
  • increasing cognitive flexibility
  • acting as a circuit breaker (like a natural ‘beta blocker’)
  • activating the parasympathetic nervous system

Professor Ratey is well known for his books on Attention Deficit and Hyperactivity Disorder (and has ADHD himself). Research studies show the positive effects of exercise on improving attention, mental focus and regulating mood, particularly through exercise that is aerobic and includes complex motor skills (eg. tennis, taekwondo).

The key message in the book is that we should see exercise as a resource for improving mental fitness and resilience. Interestingly, everyone at the book group said they had increased their level of physical activity after reading ‘Spark’.  However, when chronically stressed or experiencing low mood it is not always easy to self-motivate and Hypnotherapy can be an effective method for overcoming subconscious mental blocks that can deter us from exercise.

Ratey, J (2009) Spark: how exercise will improve the performance of your brain.  Quercus.

Spark learning and creativity: SPARK by Dr. John Ratey – YouTube