Friday, June 4, 2010

Spark: The Revolutionary Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey

Prozac versus running -- which is more effective?

According to Dr. John Ratey a regular practice of aerobic exercise can be just as effective as conventional pharmaceuticals. For those of us predisposed to the blues (sounds less depressing than "depression," doesn't it?) or its evil cousin, anxiety, the information in this book can be life changing.

A year and a half ago my sister-in-law died, ending her valiant and grace-filled battle against cancer. The last few months of her life were pretty gruesome. To say it was a difficult time for her husband and children, who tended to her full-time, making her last days as comfortable as possible, is a gross understatement. For many reasons, though, (and the details are a story for another day), my sister-in-law's impending death shook my equilibrium, even more deeply than one might expect. It tore through my emotional landscape (is that phrase appropriately vague?) so that it became difficult for me to be present day to day.

During this time, every morning after my kids got off to school, I looked down and saw the blurred tread of my treadmill spinning under my feet. I ran furiously every single morning during that period, sprinting until I exhausted myself and slid off the treadmill in a puddle of sweat. Without ever realizing it, my body knew how to help my mind. The exercise really saved me -- pulled me out of a place that was too deep to navigate without help, and I thank God I found running. I'm not sure how I would have managed without it.

John Ratey, a psychiatrist who has also authored books on ADHD, details in "Spark" medical studies and case studies that support this very belief. In fact, not only can exercise ward off emotional turmoil, but it also can help our bodies fight chronic disease, fight the effects of aging, ease the symptoms of menopause (how did I end up old enough to trade hot flash stories?) and help keep off the weight. Ratey tells how exercise builds brain resources, reroutes circuits and improves resilience.

As a pharmacist, and I would never dispute that psychopharmaceuticals can literally give people back their lives, but for those of us who want to go a different route, and approach things from a different angle, the information and guidelines in this book are a godsend. Just as in "Born to Run," (see my post from 2/23) Ratey speaks to the benefits of long-distance running detailed by Bernd Heinrich in his book, "Racing the Antelope: What Animals Can Teach Us about Running and Life." Here, Heinrich tells how our bodies have evolved to be endurance predators -- in other words, to operate optimally when engaged in long-distance running.

I fell off the exercise bandwagon about six months ago and lately I've felt the impact of this easing off. The transition into summer, with its lack of structure and increased time with my family (who I love), brings me face to face with the more squirrelly parts of myself, and that's a challenge. So I've laced up my running shoes again. If you need me, I'll tell you where you can find me: in the relative cool of the morning, walking and jogging along the main drag through my neighborhood.

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