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.

The profound effects of exercise on the brain: A conversation with Dr. John Ratey

Athletes compete during the bike section of Ironman UK on July 14, 2019 in Bolton, United Kingdom.

Photo by Nigel Roddis/Getty Images for IRONMAN
  • 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.


Stay in touch with Derek on Twitter and Facebook.

A landslide is imminent and so is its tsunami

An open letter predicts that a massive wall of rock is about to plunge into Barry Arm Fjord in Alaska.

Image source: Christian Zimmerman/USGS/Big Think
Surprising Science
  • A remote area visited by tourists and cruises, and home to fishing villages, is about to be visited by a devastating tsunami.
  • A wall of rock exposed by a receding glacier is about crash into the waters below.
  • Glaciers hold such areas together — and when they're gone, bad stuff can be left behind.

The Barry Glacier gives its name to Alaska's Barry Arm Fjord, and a new open letter forecasts trouble ahead.

Thanks to global warming, the glacier has been retreating, so far removing two-thirds of its support for a steep mile-long slope, or scarp, containing perhaps 500 million cubic meters of material. (Think the Hoover Dam times several hundred.) The slope has been moving slowly since 1957, but scientists say it's become an avalanche waiting to happen, maybe within the next year, and likely within 20. When it does come crashing down into the fjord, it could set in motion a frightening tsunami overwhelming the fjord's normally peaceful waters .

"It could happen anytime, but the risk just goes way up as this glacier recedes," says hydrologist Anna Liljedahl of Woods Hole, one of the signatories to the letter.

The Barry Arm Fjord

Camping on the fjord's Black Sand Beach

Image source: Matt Zimmerman

The Barry Arm Fjord is a stretch of water between the Harriman Fjord and the Port Wills Fjord, located at the northwest corner of the well-known Prince William Sound. It's a beautiful area, home to a few hundred people supporting the local fishing industry, and it's also a popular destination for tourists — its Black Sand Beach is one of Alaska's most scenic — and cruise ships.

Not Alaska’s first watery rodeo, but likely the biggest

Image source:

There have been at least two similar events in the state's recent history, though not on such a massive scale. On July 9, 1958, an earthquake nearby caused 40 million cubic yards of rock to suddenly slide 2,000 feet down into Lituya Bay, producing a tsunami whose peak waves reportedly reached 1,720 feet in height. By the time the wall of water reached the mouth of the bay, it was still 75 feet high. At Taan Fjord in 2015, a landslide caused a tsunami that crested at 600 feet. Both of these events thankfully occurred in sparsely populated areas, so few fatalities occurred.

The Barry Arm event will be larger than either of these by far.

"This is an enormous slope — the mass that could fail weighs over a billion tonnes," said geologist Dave Petley, speaking to Earther. "The internal structure of that rock mass, which will determine whether it collapses, is very complex. At the moment we don't know enough about it to be able to forecast its future behavior."

Outside of Alaska, on the west coast of Greenland, a landslide-produced tsunami towered 300 feet high, obliterating a fishing village in its path.

What the letter predicts for Barry Arm Fjord

Moving slowly at first...

Image source:

"The effects would be especially severe near where the landslide enters the water at the head of Barry Arm. Additionally, areas of shallow water, or low-lying land near the shore, would be in danger even further from the source. A minor failure may not produce significant impacts beyond the inner parts of the fiord, while a complete failure could be destructive throughout Barry Arm, Harriman Fiord, and parts of Port Wells. Our initial results show complex impacts further from the landslide than Barry Arm, with over 30 foot waves in some distant bays, including Whittier."

The discovery of the impeding landslide began with an observation by the sister of geologist Hig Higman of Ground Truth, an organization in Seldovia, Alaska. Artist Valisa Higman was vacationing in the area and sent her brother some photos of worrying fractures she noticed in the slope, taken while she was on a boat cruising the fjord.

Higman confirmed his sister's hunch via available satellite imagery and, digging deeper, found that between 2009 and 2015 the slope had moved 600 feet downhill, leaving a prominent scar.

Ohio State's Chunli Dai unearthed a connection between the movement and the receding of the Barry Glacier. Comparison of the Barry Arm slope with other similar areas, combined with computer modeling of the possible resulting tsunamis, led to the publication of the group's letter.

While the full group of signatories from 14 organizations and institutions has only been working on the situation for a month, the implications were immediately clear. The signers include experts from Ohio State University, the University of Southern California, and the Anchorage and Fairbanks campuses of the University of Alaska.

Once informed of the open letter's contents, the Alaska's Department of Natural Resources immediately released a warning that "an increasingly likely landslide could generate a wave with devastating effects on fishermen and recreationalists."

How do you prepare for something like this?

Image source:

The obvious question is what can be done to prepare for the landslide and tsunami? For one thing, there's more to understand about the upcoming event, and the researchers lay out their plan in the letter:

"To inform and refine hazard mitigation efforts, we would like to pursue several lines of investigation: Detect changes in the slope that might forewarn of a landslide, better understand what could trigger a landslide, and refine tsunami model projections. By mapping the landslide and nearby terrain, both above and below sea level, we can more accurately determine the basic physical dimensions of the landslide. This can be paired with GPS and seismic measurements made over time to see how the slope responds to changes in the glacier and to events like rainstorms and earthquakes. Field and satellite data can support near-real time hazard monitoring, while computer models of landslide and tsunami scenarios can help identify specific places that are most at risk."

In the letter, the authors reached out to those living in and visiting the area, asking, "What specific questions are most important to you?" and "What could be done to reduce the danger to people who want to visit or work in Barry Arm?" They also invited locals to let them know about any changes, including even small rock-falls and landslides.

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Credit: Pixabay
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