Exercising good for the body — and the mind

Most of us are convinced that running is good for our bodies and psyche, and now there's research indicating that it can even make us smarter. In "Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain," Dr. John J. Ratey explains how exercise improves learning.

Ratey, a physician who is a professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and a runner, relates the story of several school districts that found adding daily exercise classes to the middle and high school curriculum led to higher test scores in math and language arts — even when a small amount of class time was lost to make room for P.E.

Traditional P.E. classes didn't raise test scores, but aerobic activities like running did. The effect of exercise is apparent in adults, too: A 2007 study conducted in Germany found that people learn vocabulary words 20 percent faster after exercise than they did before exercising.

According to Slatey, it's important to work out at fairly high intensity, at least for a while. At 75 percent of maximum heart rate, the pituitary gland releases more human growth hormone. Normally, HGH only stays in the bloodstream a few minutes, but vigorous exercise can keep HGH levels elevated for up to four hours.

Slatey recommends interval training to boost brain power. He cites a study in which adding two short sprints to a 40-minute treadmill session led to marked improvements on cognitive tests.

"Even a small dose of pushing yourself to the limit has profound effects on your brain," he noted.

Much of the material in Spark will come as no surprise to runners, especially the studies on how exercise can combat stress, depression and anxiety, but the solid.

"It's important scientific evidence backs up what many of us have seen individually. It's one thing to know that exercise makes us feel good, but it's still a revelation to see a large-scale study that found that exercise is actually more effective in treating depression than Zoloft.

While Slatey finds that 30 minutes of exercise three times a week is enough to improve thinking skills, he suggests combining running with other activities.

"It's important to mix in some form of activity that demands coordination beyond putting one foot in front of the other," he said, such as Pilates, skating or jumping rope.

Spark is a very informative book on the importance of exercise, and adds the brain to the list of organs that benefit from a good run.

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