All About Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

Exercise and the Brain-The Research

In a recent article at the Edge Foundation for coaching students with ADHD, called "Spark! Reduce ADHD Symptoms with Exercise", there is an interesting statement about the effect of aerobic exercise and learning. It has been shown that exercise increases concentration and actually grows the brain. In a book titled, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John Ratey, M. D., the evidence was incontrovertible. It says that aerobic exercise physically transforms our brains for peak performance.

The easy to read book showcases the best findings of hundreds of papers published in the last decade on exercise and the brain. These articles give insight into the latest understanding of how the brain works and the book is written in a very understandable way. Some of the things found were:

  • Exercise is the best defense against everything from mood disorders to Attention Deficit Disorder (ADD) to addiction to menopause to Alzheimer’s.
  • Getting your heart and lungs pumping can mean the difference between a calm, focused mind and a bothered, stressed or inattentive self.
  • Aerobic exercise has been shown to be as effective as antidepressants in treating anxiety
  • The brain works much like muscles do-growing with use, shriveling with inactivity.
  • Exercise sparks new brain cell growth

A Study and Exercise Plan

Step 1 – Regular aerobic exercise

These findings would indicate to a parent that if the school is not providing regular 30 minute gym times at school, then it would be important to implement a regular aerobic exercise plan for their child at home. This would be the first and most important step.

Since parents and children have schedules that are busy, it would also be important to schedule this exercise time at a regular but manageable time. For example if dinner time was at 6:00 pm, a parent could schedule a 7:00 pm time slot for a 30 minute period of exercise.

If the child was involved in sports such as baseball, the parent would need to decide if this sport is one that has an active aerobic time for their child. Quite often, gym activities or sports in large groups involve a lot of time standing in line waiting for their turn. Therefore, some sports such as soccer or track would be a better choice for an aerobic workout than others.

Step 2 – Schedule Regular Homework and Exercise Time

The second step then after incorporating an effective aerobic workout at 7:00 pm, for example, would be to schedule a sit down time for homework in a calm setting. Your child will be alert, focused and more attentive, so they would be more likely to get their work or review of lessons done more effectively.

This workout would have to replace time spent on more passive activities such as watching TV and playing computer or video games. To change habits of parents and children already in a routine of relaxation after their work or school day, it would take initiative of all parties involved.

In some households, parents and children do not have a place to go to run, jog, dance or do aerobic activities. Some would have to schedule a time at a gym, pool, or exercise center to fit the activity in. Some parents do not have a study area or desk to work at for their child. They may have a bedroom or recreation room that they associate only with leisure. A change in habit would have to take place. This is why it would be useful to read the research findings on aerobic exercise and the brain, to convince people to change.

Another strategy would be to schedule an activity that a parent could do with their child. Together they could find an activity and a time to swim, run, jog, dance or play basketball. Some parents coach their children so this is how they work out together. Most however, find an activity for their child but not for themselves. It would be very motivating to the child if the parent were doing the activity also. Karate is one of those sports that both can take part in, at their level.

Step 3 – Schedule in Fun and Motivation

The third step in this exercise and learning plan would be to make it fun and motivating. This may mean changing the weekly activity from swimming to running to playing soccer. This may mean signing up to run a 10 k local community run and training for this goal over a period of weeks. This may mean planning a sports oriented or hiking holiday rather than a leisure or relaxing holiday. The academic objectives could be tied to the exercise objectives. Perhaps the parents and child could set a learning goal such as improvement in grades. Progress in the exercise level and academic level achieved could be plotted on a visual chart.

Step 4 – Evaluate Learning and Fitness Progress

The final step in this plan would be to evaluate if the activities are effective. If the stress level in a family is increasing because of sports commitments, or schedules, then perhaps something needs to be changed. Exercising takes time. Questions such as, “Can it be accomplished in the morning or in another way?” or “Can the environment be changed?”, are important to consider. Commitment to exercise takes motivation. The parents and children need to see the value in it before they will be willing to commit to an exercise with study program. It needs to fit into their situation.


Exercise and Learning Results

Parents need to decide how to use the research that has been found regarding exercise and learning. Some assume that the schools take care of all the needs of children. Effective use of home time is one area that a parent can help a child in their learning and exercise habits. This is one area parents have much control over. To use the time a child has to study in a productive and effective way means commitment to the idea that aerobic exercise is essential.

More information about the book, Spark, by Dr. Ratey, can be found at: