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The profound effects of exercise on the brain: A conversation with Dr. John Ratey
The Harvard Medical School's clinical professor of psychiatry wrote the book on the topic.
- Dr. John Ratey's 2008 book, Spark, investigated the many important effects that exercise has on mental health.
- While physical fitness is essential to good health, moving in a variety of ways is even more important.
- Recent research suggests that exercise is as effective for treating certain mental health conditions as pharmaceuticals.
John Ratey is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, as well as the author of numerous article and books, including Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain. In his clinical work, Dr. Ratey focuses on attentional disorders. He collaborates with institutions around the world, helping children and adults move better and with more variety while educating audiences about the impact exercise has on both physical and mental health.
I recently chatted with Dr. Ratey about the necessity of training both your brain and body (listen to the full conversation here). Next week I'll publish the second half of the interview, where we focus on diet's role in physical and mental health, as well as his recent work in addiction recovery. Here we discuss the junction of physical and mental health, barefoot running, why schools need to implement PE as part of their educational curriculum, and the role of play in fitness.
Derek: Spark was such an influential book in terms of discussing the necessity of brain health for physical fitness and vice versa. The insights are a profound rebuttal to Cartesian dualism. What initially made you interested in this connection?
John: I grew up being an athlete. Back then, athletes were not necessarily fit. I played all sports all the time, so I was pretty fit, but no one "worked out." We had to be forced on our tennis team to run a mile.
When I finally got to medical school, I was interested in psychiatric issues. There was an article about a hospital in Norway offering patients the option of taking one of our brand new amazing antidepressants or an exercise program, and they were finding the same benefits. It intuitively made sense to me. When I got overwhelmed with medical school and stopped exercising, I noticed the difference.
Then I came to Boston in the midst of Bill Rodgers and the marathon explosion. I started running like everybody else did. Then Candace Pert discovered endorphins. That became a thing: "I want to go raise my endorphins because I'm feeling a little crappy, so I better go work out."
I was just starting to teach and work at my own practice. I was very interested in ADHD. Because I was also interested in aggression, a lot of people with aggression have a history of having ADHD or ADD or dyslexia. I met a professor, who was an early marathoner, that twisted his ankle and hurt his knee, so he couldn't run anymore. At the same time, his productivity dropped. I saw him as a patient and treated him with medicine, but also helped him when he got back to running after his knee problem healed. It turns out that he didn't need the medicine except for every now and then.
That really got me interested in two things. One was attention deficit disorder, especially in adults. It began a journey into that whole area, but at the same time I always paid attention to the seemingly magical effect of exercise on attention. A part of my lectures always discuss using exercise to improve mood, attention, and aggression.
Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise can Transform our Schools: John J. Ratey, MD at TEDxManhattanBeach
Derek: Your work also introduced me to one of the most fascinating books I've ever read, i of the vortex, by Rodolfo Llinas. You quote him in Spark: "That which we call thinking is the evolutionary internalization of movement." I've been a fitness instructor at Equinox for 15 years. I teach a lot of different modalities and diversity of movement is extremely important. I wonder, given our history as a species that relied so heavily on diverse movements, why do you think that people have lost touch with that sense of diversity and even play in their physical activities?
John: It's a very good question. What we have is a coevolution of our environment that made it less part of our lives, thanks to everything the digital world has brought us to cars helping us use less exertion in everything that we do. This has led to this sort of sedentary culture that we have and it's literally killing us. It's a mismatch on what we're supposed to be doing according to our genes.
I was just in Abu Dhabi working with an educational group. It was clear that these kids aren't moving at all. They don't have to and they don't want to. And you see the problems with the lack of motivation, the lack of interest.
This is especially sad news when it comes to variety of movement. That's so important to all of us: to keep every part of our body moving. The focus now is on balance training. That's huge, because we're not moving in various different environments or encountering different challenges. Our balance goes away, especially as we age, and so we see this as a huge problem now.
I see a huge problem with learning disabled kids, who have ADD, dyslexia, and autism. They really have trouble physically balancing as well as mentally balancing. By training the one you can have an effect on the other, so back to Llinas: the internalization of that balance can help you balance your cognitive and emotional life.
Derek: When I teach yoga classes, one of the most challenging parts of the body that I find students have trouble with is their feet and ankles. When Nike introduced the padded running shoe, it really did a disservice to our anatomy. People have such little range of motion and everything starts in their feet. Daniel Lieberman writes about that as well.
John: When you take comfort in the incredible soles that you get with shoes, it throws everything off. We were born to run; Chris McDougall's book is a testament to that. He was running with the wild men of Mexico, who would run forever barefoot. When you're running with a heel strike, you put an incredible amount of torque and pressure on your knees, ankles, and hips. By correcting that with barefoot running shoes, you're forcing yourself to land on the front part of your foot. This helps to correct or avoid those damages because we're made to move that way and yet we don't do it.
Professional pickleball player Aspen Kern returns the ball during the 2nd Annual Surf City Pickleball Championships at Murdy Park in Huntington Beach, California, on Friday, August 4, 2017.
Photo by Jeff Gritchen/Digital First Media/Orange County Register via Getty Images
Derek: In Spark, you write about Zero Hour PE and the effects of the before-school elective program on children's academic performance. I wonder if you have any thoughts on why school administrators often cut programs like PE and the Arts to focus on STEM curriculum. Isn't that missing half the point of what an education should be?
John: Absolutely. That's what I spend my time around the world lecturing about. A large number of Chinese educators are beginning to turn this around. They traditionally had an emphasis on physical fitness amongst their students. Then it all became testing, testing, testing. Now they're more aware of the fact that fit students are better students: more receptive, more cooperative, they have better attention and better capacity as they actually learn quicker and test better.
So there you're seeing a resurgence in the amount of time spent in PE and the emphasis for the individual student. But here where we're doing just the opposite. There are lots of reasons for it. The big one is that there are so many different demands on the educational system that teachers want more time with kids. They want as much time as possible, as they believe it is the best way to get students to do well on test scores—that they need to achieve by having them sit in their seat and have the teacher force it into them. They're very guarded in giving up any time for such things as the Arts and physical education. Again, it misses the point. We should be about making kids fitter and not just allowing educated executives that see PE as something for the athletes making those decisions.
Derek: You touch upon an important aspect in your work, which is play. While I love gym culture, so many people treat is as a very serious, controlled activity. There really is no play on machines.
John: Adults are missing that like crazy. I just learned about pickleball, which is the fastest growing sport in America. It's a dumb sport, but it's fun and it's play; it's in some ways one of the easiest sports you could do, but people move and they laugh and they have fun and they get better and then they get competitive. We're missing that kind of playful movement interaction, as well as the social aspect. We all need to remember how important play was in our lives. Now, especially with our devices, play becomes virtual, which is a huge problem.
Derek: That's exactly where I was going to go next. I work in blockchain; I grew up the son of a computer programmer. I've worked with computers for decades. Yet when I walk into the gym, I look down the row of cardio machines and people are texting or looking at their phone. I want to explain to them that they're not learning whatever they're looking at on their phone and they're also not working out optimally.
John: Well, it's hard not to see it as the beginning of the end [laughs]. There isn't anything better than having the world at your fingertips. It's wonderful, but it's so addicting. Parents are starting to have a little bit of awareness. My grandkids aren't screen-addicted...yet. But they want to be. Parents are always on their phone, so it becomes difficult to say, "Don't do as I do, do as I say."
Derek: I believe that if we look down the road a few generations, we're going to see a big uptick in diseases of dementia because of this reliance of offloading memory to our devices.
John: Oh yeah. I used to be really good with directions. Now, even when I'm going someplace that I know the way and have been that way all the time, I sometimes have my GPS on for whatever reason. That part of my brain is not being accessed; it's being assisted. I don't need to be augmented there, yet I'm doing it. I worry about it, but I worry more about the lack of physical activity that really leads to all the reasons why we get demented.
- Why exercise might be better for mental health than meds - Big Think ›
- Running shown to keep dementia at bay as you age - Big Think ›
Higher education faces challenges that are unlike any other industry. What path will ASU, and universities like ASU, take in a post-COVID world?
- Everywhere you turn, the idea that coronavirus has brought on a "new normal" is present and true. But for higher education, COVID-19 exposes a long list of pernicious old problems more than it presents new problems.
- It was widely known, yet ignored, that digital instruction must be embraced. When combined with traditional, in-person teaching, it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale.
- COVID-19 has forced institutions to understand that far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted.
What conditions of the new normal were already appreciated widely?<p>First, we understand that higher education is unique among industries. Some industries are governed by markets. Others are run by governments. Most operate under the influence of both markets and governments. And then there's higher education. Higher education as an "industry" involves public, private, and for-profit universities operating at small, medium, large, and now massive scales. Some higher education industry actors are intense specialists; others are adept generalists. Some are fantastically wealthy; others are tragically poor. Some are embedded in large cities; others are carefully situated near farms and frontiers.</p> <p>These differences demonstrate just some of the complexities that shape higher education. Still, we understand that change in the industry is underway, and we must be active in directing it. Yet because of higher education's unique (and sometimes vexing) operational and structural conditions, many of the lessons from change management and the science of industrial transformation are only applicable in limited or highly modified ways. For evidence of this, one can look at various perspectives, including those that we have offered, on such topics as <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/digital-learning/blogs/rethinking-higher-education/lessons-disruption" target="_blank">disruption</a>, <a href="https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/20/education/learning/education-technology.html" target="_blank">technology management</a>, and so-called "<a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/sites/default/server_files/media/Excerpt_IHESpecialReport_Growing-Role-of-Mergers-in-Higher-Ed.pdf" target="_blank">mergers and acquisitions</a>" in higher education. In each of these spaces, the "market forces" and "market rules" for higher education are different than they are in business, or even in government. This has always been the case and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p> <p>Second, with so much excitement about innovation in higher education, we sometimes lose sight of the fact that students are—and should remain—the core cause for innovation. Higher education's capacity to absorb new ideas is strong. But the ideas that endure are those designed to benefit students, and therefore society. This is important to remember because not all innovations are designed with students in mind. The recent history of innovation in higher education includes several cautionary tales of what can happen when institutional interests—or worse, <a href="https://www.insidehighered.com/news/2016/02/09/apollos-new-owners-seek-fresh-start-beleaguered-company" target="_blank">shareholder</a> interests—are placed above student well-being.</p>
Photo: Getty Images<p>Third, it is abundantly apparent that universities must leverage technology to increase educational quality and access. The rapid shift to delivering an education that complies with social distancing guidelines speaks volumes about the adaptability of higher education institutions, but this transition has also posed unique difficulties for colleges and universities that had been slow to adopt digital education. The last decade has shown that online education, implemented effectively, can meet or even surpass the quality of in-person <a href="https://link-springer-com.ezproxy1.lib.asu.edu/article/10.1007/s10639-019-10027-z" target="_blank">instruction</a>.</p><p>Digital instruction, broadly defined, leverages online capabilities and integrates adaptive learning methodologies, predictive analytics, and innovations in instructional design to enable increased student engagement, personalized learning experiences, and improved learning outcomes. The ability of these technologies to transcend geographic barriers and to shrink the marginal cost of educating additional students makes them essential for delivering education at scale.</p><p>As a bonus, and it is no small thing given that they are the core cause for innovation, students embrace and enjoy digital instruction. It is their preference to learn in a format that leverages technology. This should not be a surprise; it is now how we live in all facets of life.</p><p>Still, we have only barely begun to conceive of the impact digital education will have. For example, emerging virtual and augmented reality technologies that facilitate interactive, hands-on learning will transform the way that learners acquire and apply new knowledge. Technology-enabled learning cannot replace the traditional college experience or ensure the survival of any specific college, but it can enhance student learning outcomes at scale. This has always been the case, and it is made more obvious by COVID-19.</p>
What conditions of the new normal were emerging suspicions?<p>Our collective thinking about the role of institutional or university-to-university collaboration and networking has benefitted from a new clarity in light of COVID-19. We now recognize more than ever that colleges and universities must work together to ensure that the American higher education system is resilient and sufficiently robust to meet the needs of students and their families.</p> <p>In recent weeks, various commentators have suggested that higher education will face a wave of institutional <a href="https://www.businessinsider.com/scott-galloway-predicts-colleges-will-close-due-to-pandemic-2020-5" target="_blank">closures</a> and consolidations and that large institutions with significant online instruction capacity will become dominant.</p> <p>While ASU is the largest public university in the United States by enrollment and among the most well-equipped in online education, we strongly oppose "let them fail" mindsets. The strength of American higher education relies on its institutional diversity, and on the ability of colleges and universities to meet the needs of their local communities and educate local students. The needs of learners are highly individualized, demanding a wide range of options to accommodate the aspirations and learning styles of every kind of student. Education will become less relevant and meaningful to students, and less responsive to local needs, if institutions of higher learning are allowed to fail. </p> <p>Preventing this outcome demands that colleges and universities work together to establish greater capacity for remote, distributed education. This will help institutions with fewer resources adapt to our new normal and continue to fulfill their mission of serving students, their families, and their communities. Many had suspected that collaboration and networking were preferable over letting vulnerable colleges fail. COVID-19's new normal seems to be confirming this.</p>
President Barack Obama delivers the commencement address during the Arizona State University graduation ceremony at Sun Devil Stadium May 13, 2009 in Tempe, Arizona. Over 65,000 people attended the graduation.
Photo by Joshua Lott/Getty Images<p>A second condition of the new normal that many had suspected to be true in recent years is the limited role that any one university or type of university can play as an exemplar to universities more broadly. For decades, the evolution of higher education has been shaped by the widespread imitation of a small number of elite universities. Most public research universities could benefit from replicating Berkeley or Michigan. Most small private colleges did well by replicating Williams or Swarthmore. And all universities paid close attention to Harvard, Princeton, MIT, Stanford, and Yale. It is not an exaggeration to say that the logic of replication has guided the evolution of higher education for centuries, both in the US and abroad.</p><p>Only recently have we been able to move beyond replication to new strategies of change, and COVID-19 has confirmed the legitimacy of doing so. For example, cases such as <a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/education/2020/03/10/harvard-moves-classes-online-advises-students-stay-home-after-spring-break-response-covid-19/" target="_blank">Harvard's</a> eviction of students over the course of less than one week or <a href="https://www.nhregister.com/news/coronavirus/article/Mayor-New-Haven-asks-for-coronavirus-help-Yale-15162606.php" target="_blank">Yale's apparent reluctance</a> to work with the city of New Haven, highlight that even higher education's legacy gold standards have limits and weaknesses. We are hopeful that the new normal will include a more active and earnest recognition that we need many types of universities. We think the new normal invites us to rethink the very nature of "gold standards" for higher education.</p>
A graduate student protests MIT's rejection of some evacuation exemption requests.
Photo: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images<p>Finally, and perhaps most importantly, we had started to suspect and now understand that America's colleges and universities are among the many institutions of democracy and civil society that are, by their very design, incapable of being sufficiently responsive to the full spectrum of modern challenges and opportunities they face. Far too many higher education outcomes are determined by a student's family income, and in the context of COVID-19 this means that lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color will be disproportionately afflicted. And without new designs, we can expect postsecondary success for these same students to be as elusive in the new normal, as it was in the <a href="http://pellinstitute.org/indicators/reports_2019.shtml" target="_blank">old normal</a>. This is not just because some universities fail to sufficiently recognize and engage the promise of diversity, this is because few universities have been designed from the outset to effectively serve the unique needs of lower-income students, first-generation students and students of color.</p>
Where can the new normal take us?<p>As colleges and universities face the difficult realities of adapting to COVID-19, they also face an opportunity to rethink their operations and designs in order to respond to social needs with greater agility, adopt technology that enables education to be delivered at scale, and collaborate with each other in order to maintain the dynamism and resilience of the American higher education system.</p> <p>COVID-19 raises questions about the relevance, the quality, and the accessibility of higher education—and these are the same challenges higher education has been grappling with for years. </p> <p>ASU has been able to rapidly adapt to the present circumstances because we have spent nearly two decades not just anticipating but <em>driving</em> innovation in higher education. We have adopted a <a href="https://www.asu.edu/about/charter-mission-and-values" target="_blank">charter</a> that formalizes our definition of success in terms of "who we include and how they succeed" rather than "<a href="https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2019/10/17/forget-varsity-blues-madness-lets-talk-about-students-who-cant-afford-college/" target="_blank">who we exclude</a>." We adopted an entrepreneurial <a href="https://president.asu.edu/read/higher-logic" target="_blank">operating model</a> that moves at the speed of technological and social change. We have launched initiatives such as <a href="https://www.instride.com/how-it-works/" target="_blank">InStride</a>, a platform for delivering continuing education to learners already in the workforce. We developed our own robust technological capabilities in ASU <a href="https://edplus.asu.edu/" target="_blank">EdPlus</a>, a hub for research and development in digital learning that, even before the current crisis, allowed us to serve more than 45,000 fully online students. We have also created partnerships with other forward-thinking institutions in order to mutually strengthen our capabilities for educational accessibility and quality; this includes our role in co-founding the <a href="https://theuia.org/" target="_blank">University Innovation Alliance</a>, a consortium of 11 public research universities that share data and resources to serve students at scale. </p> <p>For ASU, and universities like ASU, the "new normal" of a post-COVID world looks surprisingly like the world we already knew was necessary. Our record breaking summer 2020 <a href="https://asunow.asu.edu/20200519-sun-devil-life-summer-enrollment-sets-asu-record" target="_blank">enrollment</a> speaks to this. What COVID demonstrates is that we were already headed in the right direction and necessitates that we continue forward with new intensity and, we hope, with more partners. In fact, rather than "new normal" we might just say, it's "go time." </p>
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