How Exercise Makes Us Smarter: Ruminations from Dr. John Ratey, author of “Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”

Back in the ’90s researchers discovered that exercise not only prevented the onset of cognitive decline, but it actually makes our brains grow. Dr. John Ratey wrote a book about it called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain (pick up a copy, it’s great). We called him the other day to get the highlights. One thing that jumped out: of all the types of exercise possible, the best are those done outdoors with people and plenty of stimuli. Think skiing, climbing, trekking, kayaking, or, you know, pretty much every sport the outdoors community is into. Playing in the wilderness, aside from kicking ass in general, all makes us better at our jobs, our studies, our hobbies. The moral? Exercise + Outdoors = Happier, Smarter People.

Interview by Bryan Schatz


There’s been at least 1600 medical papers written about the positive effect of exercise on preventing cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s, as well as improving test scores for middle aged and elderly people.

More recently we’ve looked at it in kids. We’re seeing the changes where play and exercise can bring improving scores on tests and facilitating learning and performance.

There’s an acute effect that’s really important. That is, the day you exercise you get the effect afterwards of being more positive, more directed, more motivated, more focused, and that will last for two to five hours or even longer. You will certainly have an improvement in your motivation, mood and interest in [whatever you are working on]. And then you have the build up over time, a chronic effect. The more fit you are, all those things hold. It’s not just an immediate burst, it’s lasting.

It also helps with being impulsive, being fidgety; it helps you with frustration if something is difficult to learn.

It also changes the brain chemistry. You release a lot of neurotransmitters, things that psychiatrists aim for using drugs like Ritalin, Adderall, Prozac, Zoloft, all these anti-depressants, anti-anxiety agents, stimulants. All those aim to release neurotransmitters, but exercise does a great job of it, and does it very quickly and naturally.

Every time we use our brains when we exercise, we use a bigger portion of our brains than in any other activity that we know of, including any medicine.

The only way that we learn anything is for our brain cells to grow and change. These are not concepts or ideas, these are facts that we’ve learned over the last twenty years. Exercise optimizes the environment for these cells to grow and change.

We learned in 1999 that we humans make new brain cells every day in specific areas that are related to learning and memory. We do it anyway, but if you learn, you do more, if you meditate, you do more, if you’re playing you do more still. But if you’re exercising, you’re doing the most.

All kinds of exercise are useful, but there is a stair step, if you will. Ascending the scale: Yoga, strength training, aerobic exercise, aerobic exercise with coordination challenges, aerobic exercise with coordination challenges and playing outside instead of inside is better, playing with people as opposed to without people. That’s the progression. They improve mood, learning capacity, etc.

We’re encouraging “brain breaks” in schools now. After they’ve already done 20-45 minutes of PE in the morning, throughout the day we have “brain breaks” where kids get up, even just by their desks, and they’re doing calisthenics or jumping or dancing, getting their bodies and their brains active again.

The first thing that happens when you bring exercise into underprivileged schools is the discipline problem drops tremendously, like 83 percent, sometimes 95 percent, almost immediately. Well then you get kids paying attention, then you get kids showing up to school, then less tardiness, then more teacher satisfaction and student satisfaction – then you get learning taking place.

It’s amazing that not everyone knows this.

I have a gym in my building that I go to if I’m pressed for time, which I am most of the time. I run on the treadmill. I used to play squash three times a week as well, but I ruined my shoulder. So I’m a gym rat. I run 5Ks, run outside as well. I hike, I play, you name it.