Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Train Your Brain

To Celebrate National Running Day let's look at the book SPARK by John Ratey, MD

I've been wearing my "Running is Cheaper than Therapy" t-shirt for ages. I started running when I was 11. To be honest, my niece tells me I "slog" more than I run. If I do a 5k in under 30 minutes, it's a good day. But, hey, 35 years later I'm still at it. I've always believed there was something therapeutic about running. The few times I've been injured or gotten off track I've been rather miserable. Miserable to be around that is. Now I understand why.

I just finished reading SPARK: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey. In SPARK, Dr. Ratey explains the mind-body connection, making a compelling case that exercise is our best defense against depression, ADHD, anxiety, addiction, menopause, dementia and the effects of aging. I was fascinated by how exercise can improve learning. Essentially, exercise optimizes your mindset for learning by improving your alertness, attention, mood and motivation. It helps you log new information by encouraging nerve cells to bind to one another and it spurs the development of new nerve cells from stem cells in the hippocampus. 

The book includes some fascinating case studies including the physical education program in Naperville, Illinois. There was a quote where a PE Teacher said his job was to grow the kids' brains cells and it was the teachers job to fill them. Now how's that for a shift in the way you think of high school PE? 

All movement is good. All exercise is good. And, generally, more is better. But, there is something special about running  
"I tell people that going for a run is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin because, like the drugs, exercise elevates these neurotransmitters. Exercise balances neurotransmitters – along with the rest of the neurochemicals in the brain. Keeping your brain in balance can change your life.” Dr. John Ratey, author of SPARK 
How much exercise should you do? Dr. Ratey recommends multiplying your body weight by eight and planning to burn that many calories exercising over the course of a week. If you weigh 150 pounds, you'd want to be burning 1,200 calories per week. If you burn 200 in 30 minutes at the gym, you'd plan to do six sessions per week. I did the math for myself and figured I'm meeting my target in just one or two workouts, so this is very doable. 

Dr. Ratey is also a proponent of using a heart rate monitor when you exercise. My husband, Patrick, is working on a post for us about heart rate monitor training, so stay tuned. 

"The more fit you are, the more resilient you are." This is one of my favorite quotes in the book. People talk a lot about stress management, but somehow the concepts and recommended actions never seem meaningful to me. Instead of focusing on reducing our stress, I think it's more beneficial to focus on building our resilience. This way we will be prepared to cope with whatever life throws our way. When we are stressed, we need to bump exercise higher up on our priority lists. 

A statistic I find stunning -- 20 percent of older adults who break a hip die within a year. More women die every year from hip fractures than from breast cancer. The best defense? You guessed it -- EXERCISE in the form of some strength training that stresses the bones. I have to think some balance work would be beneficial too in reducing the risk of a fall. 

A few words on diet -- According to Dr. Ratey, low-carb diets are not good for your brain. Carbs supply a steady flow of energy and transport necessary amino acids to the brain. Cumin, garlic, onions, broccoli, blueberries, pomegranates  spinach, beets, green tea and red wine all activate a cellular repair mechanism that is beneficial. The omega-3s in fish are enormously beneficial. He mentions that Omega-3s are sometimes used to treat mood disorders and ADHD. And, there was a study that showed people who eat fish once a week slow the yearly rate of cognitive decline by 10 percent. All the more reason to stick with our Mediterranean Diet.  

This provides a nice segue into supplements. Dr. Ratey recommends the following daily supplements:
  • Omega-3s - 1,200 mg of EPA and 200 mg of DHA (I like the Coromega product we used in our heart health initiative and it includes Vitamin D.)
  • Vitamin D - 1,000 IU
  • Calcium - 1,500 mg for women (Let me know if you find one that's chewable and doesn't leave a funny taste in your mouth.)
  • Vitamin B with at least 800 mg of folate (This is supposed to improve memory and processing speed. I couldn't find one with 800 mg of folate and wound up buying one with 400. I'll take it for now and keep looking.) Also, ran across this article about using Folate to treat depression.
The book can get a little sciency at times, but when I finished, I wanted to give a copy to everyone that I love. It's available on Audible too, so you can listen while you're running.




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