Thursday, May 24, 2012

Book Review: Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

My wonderful friend Kennedy at Always, Always Reading recommended this one to me way back in January when I posted about getting on track with exercise and dealing with depression.  It's by John J. Ratey, who is a psychiatrist who specializes in research regarding the effect of exercise on neurochemistry and how exercise changes the physical and neurochemical composition of the brain.  Basically, he is a genius.  A genius who has done his homework.  He covers pretty much every recent study done on the links between the brain and exercise and draws amazing links between the benefits of exercise on a variety of modern ailments like depression, ADD, addiction, stress, and even learning capability, particularly in children.

Ratey is obviously a scientist and his writing reflects that.  This is not your typical pop-science book.  Ratey isn't another Mary Roach or A.J. Jacobs (which, by the way is not a slight - I love both authors).  It is very very detailed scientific information.  That doesn't mean its completely inaccesible, but it isn't a light, easy read.  I felt like I needed to read it with a notepad and highlighter in hand.  There are a lot of neurological and biological processes that are described in depth and in technical language, and Ratey expects his readers to keep up.  Honestly, I really appreciated his coverage of the subject matter because he wrote for a reader who is intelligent.  He didn't dumb things down any more than necessary and he didn't repeat definitions or terms.  He writes for an educated, curious reader who isn't afraid to be challenged.  I like that a lot.  But it did make for a difficult read and required my full attention.  I still feel like I would probably do well to reread it with a notepad in hand.

Another major bonus for me in Ratey's writing is that he cites his sources impeccably.  I know you've all heard me say it before but sources are SO IMPORTANT.  For oh so many reasons.  A well-cited source proves that the author knows what he's talking about and is using credible research.  A well-cited source also enables the reader to find that source (in this case generally studies regarding exercise) and read it for his or herself in its entirety.  Context is fairly important in scientific research and accurate citations provide accurate context for the reader.  Basically all this to say, Ratey is my new BFF in terms of scientific authorship. 

Entertainment Value
I guess how entertained you are by this book is really going to be dictated by your interest in exercise.  Or maybe in your interest in your mental and emotional health.  Because honestly I have absolutely no interest in exercise.  I am not a health and fitness devotee by any means.  But I am a HUGE believer in the power of the mind.  And if Ratey can (and he does) provide accurate, measurable documentation of exercise playing a role in the ability to learn, process, and retain knowledge, well he's won my interest.  Also, there's the whole stress and depression angle that is of particular interest to me. 

This book is a hard read.  Like I mentioned in the writing section, there is a lot of technical language and detailed biological description.  It's not a page turner and Ratey doesn't take the typical pop-science approach of humor and annecdotes.  Not to say that the book is boring, but its focus is on scientific research, not entertainment. 

I can't rave about it enough.  It has really increased my motivation to keep moving and continue exercising if for no reason other than to benefit my mind and my emotions.  I think it's one that will appeal more to those who are already interested in the subject and who enjoy scientific non-fiction, but I don't think it's appeal is limited to those people.  If it's something you want to learn about, I highly recommend giving this a try.


  1. I will have to keep this one in mind for a future read. It sounds informative!