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June 2024

"Spark" - A Book Review

John J. Ratey, MD, is an associate clinical professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School, and has co-written several books over his long career in medicine. Eric Hagerman is a former editor at Popular Science and Outside magazines, and his articles have also appeared in The Best American Sports Writing 2004, Men's Journal, and PLAY. In 2008, Ratey and Hagerman teamed up to release "Spark", which discusses the relationship between physical activity, exercise, and the brain. I took an interest in this book after having a conversation with the Head Freshman Football Coach at Dominion High School, Carlos Hercules. He and I attended a sports expo for rising 9th graders at the school that took place before the high school day typically starts. I had noticed that there was activity going on in the main gym, which I then learned was called Zero Block. I had heard of Zero Block before (it is called Zero Block because it takes place before the traditional First Block period), but I assumed it was some sort of punishment. In fact, kids voluntarily sign up for Zero Block because evidence shows that performing physical activity early in the morning helps people of all ages to be more alert, focused, and have more energy for the first several hours of the day.

The first chapter (after the introduction) details the radical and experimental program that took place at Naperville Central High School, which is located just west of Chicago. Here is where the concept of Zero Hour P.E. was first implemented, and it was spearheaded by physical education teachers Neil Duncan, Phil Lawler, and former high school football coach Paul Zientarski. In Zero Hour P.E. the students did not participate in just the traditional team sports and games that you would expect to see in your standard gym class, but they had a menu of options that included kayaking, dance, rock climbing, as well as running the mile. Students were graded on effort rather than performance, which encouraged them to stick with it and not give up, and they had targets to shoot for in terms of heart rate, blood pressure, and body fat, which motivated them to take ownership of their fitness. Even better was the fact that Zero Hour P.E. had a positive impact on standardized test scores and graduation rate. According to the authors, the two high schools in the Naperville district "...boast a 97 percent graduation rate." At Naperville Central High in particular the "...composite ACT score for the graduating class of 2005 was 24.8, well above the state average of 20.1." Pretty impressive.

The second chapter discusses learning, and right off the bat Ratey and Hagerman tell us that, "In addition to priming our state of mind, exercise influences learning directly, at the cellular level, improving the brain's potential to log in and process new information." Exercise can strengthen the affinity between the brain's neurons, thus making the connection easier and the new information that is processed is more likely to stick in your memory. VEGF (vascular endothelial growth factor) is a hormone produced during exercise that can push through the blood-brain barrier and help stimulate the machinery of learning. The authors note that, "When our body's cells run short of oxygen, as they can when our muscles contract during exercise, VEGF gets to work building more capillaries in the body and the brain." Just learning how to properly perform Total Results exercise challenges your brain, and perfecting your form shows that you have strengthened the circuits linking different parts of your brain such as the cerebellum, prefrontal cortex, and basal ganglia.

Most of us are aware that exercise helps improve depression, but many of us probably don't know that it can be just as effective as taking antidepressant medication. Researchers at Duke University undertook a study in 1999 in which 156 people participated. They were split up into three groups: one took Zoloft, one group exercised, and the third group did a combination of the two. The exercise group, it should be noted, walked or jogged for 30 minutes, three times a week, at 70 to 85 percent of their aerobic capacity (although how they measured that was not discussed in the chapter). At the end of the study, all three groups showed a significant drop in their depression, which led the chief researcher to conclude that exercise is as effective at improving depression as medication. While those results are certainly encouraging (I know that I would rather walk than take medication with nasty side effects), I have worked in the field of exercise for long enough to have some skepticism with how exercise related studies are often conducted. Certainly this would merit further examination.

I have a few concerns about this book, even though I did enjoy reading it. One question I have is, why is there so much reverence for Kenneth Cooper? Sure, he's a notable figure in the world of running, but in my opinion he did far more to wreck people's knees than improve their hearts with his "Aerobics revolution" that began in the late 1960s. According to Ken Hutchins, Cooper was far more of an evangelist than a scientist, and we have come to learn of the extreme muscle-wasting that comes from developing a running habit, not to mention the overuse injuries. Second, there is no real definition of exercise in this book. It seems to me that any type of movement or activity would qualify in the authors' eyes. One must also understand that a truly clinical definition of exercise has only been developed by the aforementioned Hutchins. He defines exercise as, "A process by which the body performs work of a demanding nature, in accordance with muscle and joint function, in a clinically controlled environment, within the constraints of safety, meaningfully loading the muscular structures to inroad their strength levels to stimulate a growth mechanism in minimum time." Sure, I believe that movement is good for you, and that as human beings we were not designed to sit still, but some activities are higher risk than others. Extreme activities may alleviate depression and improve mood, but what if you get injured in the process? That could also cause depression, and that other side of the coin seems to be ignored. Improved body image, confidence, and mood elevation can result from one or two Total Results workouts each week. I have not conducted any studies on the matter, but I have enough anecdotal evidence over the past 25 years to realize that I am onto something.

Although "Spark" is slow-moving at times, I thought it was beneficial to read in order to comprehend a different point of view. Dr. Ratey and Mr. Hagerman write well together and give a lot of good information. I encourage you to give the book a read and draw your own conclusions.

Posted June 28, 2024 by Matthew Romans

Time is of the Essence

Time is the one commodity that always seems to be in short supply. We always think we have more of it, that the future lies far off in the distance, but then you wake up one day and realize that you are much closer to the end of your life than you are to the beginning. Time is precious, and as we come to grips with the fact that life doesn't last forever, most of us can feel a sense of urgency that we want to be able to make the most out of the time that we have on earth. We want to have meaningful experiences, make a positive impact on others, and do the things in life that we are passionate about. Nothing in life is worse than regret, and if we do not take the initiative to focus on the things in this world that we can control we can find ourselves looking back on our lives with disappointment.

Time is an important factor in exercise, in several ways. Most of us do not have hours each week to spend working out, so an exercise philosophy that involves brief and infrequent workouts is very appealing. Establishing good habits entails implementing a regimen that is not overly time consuming, because a large time commitment will provide an obstacle and excuse for many. It is no surprise that most people who start traditional "gym" workouts with a high frequency and many hours to invest generally flame out pretty quickly. Brief workouts are not only important from a scheduling standpoint, but also from a biological perspective. Cortisol is a steroid hormone that is released by the adrenal glands during times of stress and physical activity. If your workout proceeds for too long, too much cortisol is released and can have harmful repercussions. 20 minute, high-intensity sessions will properly stimulate physical improvements while not resulting in excessive cortisol production.

Time under load (TUL) is another way in which time plays a role in exercise. Rather than count and record the number of repetitions that are completed in an exercise, we make note of the total TUL that was achieved. This is advantageous for a couple of reasons. First, counting repetitions is merely a step function. Let's say that you complete six repetitions and get halfway through a seventh before reaching failure. If we merely recorded repetitions you would not credit for the partial repetition that you attempted, but if we record TUL you will get credit for that additional ten to fifteen seconds that you continued to push or pull while your muscles were still under tension. Second, an additional fifteen seconds means more stress for the musculature, which will result in a measurement of progress and a higher quality of stimulus. If we increase our TUL on an exercise compared to a previous workout (assuming standardized form) while using the same weight, we know that we have increased our muscular endurance. Bear in mind, however, that TUL is just one measurement of our progress. Never sacrifice form for an increased TUL.

The amount of time between exercises is important as well. We set up all the machines for your workout in advance for a reason. That is because we want to move as quickly and efficiently between exercises as possible. Minimizing time between exercises is critical for making metabolic and cardiovascular improvements. In order to improve the cardiovascular system, we need to perform quality work with the skeletal muscles, and working to and beyond muscular failure ensures that we have given a maximum effort. However, if we rest between exercises we give our circulatory and metabolic systems a chance to recover, and that defeats the purpose of what we are trying to achieve. Stalling only drags out the workout and shortchanges you of benefit. We don't want you to rush through your workout, but we do want you to be as efficient as possible.

The most important factor in your body's ability to recover and stimulate physical improvements is time. Sure, proper sleep is necessary to aid in tissue repair, and nutrition is critical to have the raw materials and essential fuel, but you can satisfy those requirements while still not giving the body enough time to build upon its previous levels of strength and conditioning. There is an inverse relationship between intensity of effort and the time it takes to recuperate. We want the minimum dosage of exercise that is necessary to stimulate physical improvements, because exercise has a narrow therapeutic window. Too much exercise creates a toxic effect, while not enough exercise provides little benefit. It takes between 48 and 72 hours for the body to replenish glycogen stores (your primary fuel source during intense exercise), which is why our clients exercise no more than twice per week with at least three days between sessions. This is not just something that we can get away with, but rather a physical necessity. You must give the body adequate time to repair itself and not interfere with the process by overexerting yourself between sessions.

As former Navy SEAL Mark Divine notes in his book "The Way of the SEAL", it is important to understand your purpose. Are you truly interested in accomplishing meaningful change, or are you just marking time? Most people spend a lot of time in the gym but perform very little (if any) exercise. There should be a sense of urgency when it comes to your health. The Total Results philosophy saves you time so that you can focus on what is important to you, and every session is an opportunity for tangible improvement. Do not put it off until tomorrow, for we do not know what tomorrow holds or if it will come at all. Start today. Time is of the essence.

Posted June 14, 2024 by Matthew Romans