ASM John Ratey Links Increased Physical Activity with Higher Levels of Brain Stimulation, Encourages Students to Exercise More

Author and Harvard professor John Ratey urged Andover students to embrace exercise and improve their mental and physical health at Wednesday’s All-School Meeting. Ratey is the author of several books on psychiatry and neurology. His latest book, “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain,” urges its readers to revitalize schools, combat the obesity crisis and fight the underlying cause of many chronic diseases. Catherine Golas, Administrator of Isham Health Center, and Michael Kuta, Athletic Director, worked together to bring John Ratey to Andover. They achieved this objective with the help of an Abbot Grant. Golas wanted to share Ratey’s message with the Andover community after she read Spark. “After reading each chapter, I went for a run,” she said. “When I exercise, I know how great I feel,” Golas said. “I wanted students to feel the same way, and I was hoping that [Ratey] would have an impact on non-athletes—to motivate them to see the science, and want to make that change,” she continued. Ratey spoke about the connection between physical exercise and mental stimulation. He explained how the human race has evolved over time to become less and less active, yet more in need of additional exercise than ever. He said that early hunter-gatherers covered an average of 10 to 14 miles a day, but now the average human spends 10 to 14 hours in front of a screen each day. “For the early humans, [exercise] was a necessity, not a choice,” Ratey said. He then encouraged students to embrace active lifestyles. “We are not meant to sit. We are meant to move. We need to move,” he said. Ratey continued by linking physical activity to higher development of the brain. He connected the parts of the brain that control movement and thinking and explained how the health of one affects the other. “The moving brain is the thinking brain,” he said. To bolster his theory, Ratey cited a study that compared the IQs of obese toddlers to those of their average weight siblings. The study showed that obese toddlers at age four had average IQs that were almost 30 points below their normal-weight siblings, compared to the usual five to 10-point difference between siblings. Ratey explained that obese toddlers also showed symptoms of early Alzheimer’s disease, an incurable, degenerative and terminal disease usually diagnosed to people over 65 years of age. Ratey discussed the reasons and logic behind the statistics. In a study that analyzed the major factors that keep a brain young, active and healthy, exercise proved to be the most important, he said. After citing another recent study analyzing the correlation between exercise and brain health, Ratey said that lab rats that ran almost 20 miles a day scored 20 percent better on tests measuring memory, cognition and logic than rats that did not exercise. The rats’ brains also became larger, and the brain cells grew in size and in number, he said. Ratey concluded his presentation by urging the students to become more active during the day. He cited cases where schools all around the country began to adopt more exercise programs for their students. One school, after starting a daily exercise program, saw an 80 percent drop in disciplinary problems, Ratey said. Both attendance and concentration levels shot up more than 35 percent, and grade point averages raised one and a half letter grades, he added. “I wanted to change opinion, knowledge and awareness,” Ratey said after the presentation. “I wanted the students to be aware of what inactivity does, and activity’s impact on physical, mental, spiritual and cognitive health.”