THE POWERFUL EFFECTS OF EXERCISE ON THE BRAIN
From ADDICTIONS to MENTAL ILLNESS, EXERCISE is increasingly recommended as part of a TREATMENT PLAN
By Pete Williams
(from USA Triathlon Fall 2017 Magazine)
The multisport lifestyle is full of success stories of people who overcame addictions and depression by adopting a busy training schedule of swimming, biking and running.
After all, it’s difficult to train for a triathlon with addictions getting in the way. Throw in the endorphin rush of training and the joy of competition that never grows old, and it’s not surprising that a number of athletes have beaten addiction, depression and even ADHD by replacing a bad habit with a healthy one such as triathlon training.
John Ratey, a clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, remembers when such positive body-mind connections were not widely recognized. During his residency in Boston at the height of the first running boom in the 1970s, Ratey worked with a marathon runner who had grown depressed when he stopped running andshowed signs of ADHD.
Once the athlete started running again, the symptoms went away.
“By moving our bodies, we send a lot of messages to the brain,” said Ratey, 69, author of a number of books, including “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain.” “I was able to recognize early in my career the self-medicating power of what exercise can do.”
Debbie Phelps famously brought her 9-year-old son Michael to the swimming pool to help him deal with an ADHD diagnosis. Not everyone who turns to exercise is going to become a 23-time Olympic gold medalist, of course, but the structure of training combined with the benefits of physical exercise are pretty universal.
Exercise triggers responses in the important neurotransmitters long studied in connection with issues like addiction and depression, chemicals like serotonin, dopamine, and norepinephrine. The quickest path to the health and well-being of the brain and body, Ratey says, is movement, or vigorous exercise.
The key is the brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), which Ratey refers to as the “Miracle-Gro of the brain.” Movement places demands on the brain, just as it does on muscle, causing the brain to release BDNF, which triggers the growth of cells to meet the increased mental demands of movement.
BDNF floods throughout the brain, not just to the parts engaged in movement. Thus, the whole brain flourishes as a result of movement. It provides the environment that brain cells need to grow and function well.
“By moving our bodies, we send a lot of messages to the brain. I was able to recognize early in my career the self-medicating power of what exercise can do.”
JOHN RATEY, clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
Ratey has long recognized the benefits of training early in the morning, not just on a personal level but in his research. For years, schools in Naperville, Illinois, have posted high standardized test scores while having some of the lowest percentages of overweight students in the country. The reason, which inspired Ratey’s book “Spark,” was a 45-minute fitness program at the start of the day.
Many — if not most — triathletes train first thing in the morning, whether it’s to fit demanding training into their schedule, bike before the roads get crowded, or run or swim before temperatures become too warm. Instead of feeling tired after a workout, they tend to experience high levels of energy and focus, much like the Naperville students.
“It wakes you up and gets all the chemistry going in the right way,” Ratey said. “As a result, you’re more attentive, alert, productive and motivated. It also gives you a feeling of achievement. No matter how chaotic your day is, you’ve accomplished something and worked on improving.”
In his latest book “Go Wild: Free Your Mind from the Afflictions of Civilization,” Ratey writes about the importance of continually challenging the brain as you get older.
He cites activities such as karate and yoga as especially effective since the body and mind must work together to process new movements. The same is true of swimming, which many triathletes don’t learn to do properly until pursuing triathlon as adults.
“Swimming requires focused attention to make sure you get the stroke right and get the most power [out] of it,” Ratey said. “The same is true with biking when it comes to working gears and understanding strategy. And even running, which is more innate, becomes more of a challenge if you’re on the trail.”
Numerous studies note the physical and cognitive decline most people experience after the age of 50, but that need not be the case. Results released in June from a study at the University of Eastern Finland showed that greater muscle strength is associated with better cognitive function in aging men and women.
“The pharmaceutical companies have yet to create something as effective as exercise.”
clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School
Ratey, whose next book will look at ADHD, covering among other topics the role of exercise in dealing with it, speaks often about the need for children to move more. More than 1 in 7 American children get diagnosed with ADHD, according to the recent book “ADHD Nation” by Alan Schwarz. The numbers have skyrocketed in recent years, coinciding with a lack of physical activity both at school and at home brought on by a sedentary, screen-based culture.yc
“Schools now look at physical activity as a non-essential part of the daily life,” Ratey said. “Even though we have all this data showing that you improve test scores and the ability to learn, we still don’t allow our kids to have time for recess and fun.”
Ratey cautions that exercise is not a cure-all for everyone batting addiction, depression or ADHD, though it has worked wonders on many people, including athletes.
“I’m fond of saying a bout of exercise is like taking a little bit of Prozac and a little bit of Ritalin,” Ratey said. “The pharmaceutical companies have yet to create something as effective as exercise.”
PETE WILLIAMS is a writer and triathlete in Clearwater, Florida.