Have you ever wondered how you can keep your brain healthy? Psychiatrist and author John Ratey shares amazing information about the power exercise has over the brain. Enjoy the show!
My guest today is John Ratey who is a doctor and an author. He is a Harvard Professor of Psychiatry as well as a practicing psychiatrist. He has a passion for the brain—specifically, how to keep it healthy at all ages. Welcome, John.
Thank you for having me. I’m delighted to be with you.
Thank you. I’m really thrilled to have you here. One of our key themes at Sixty and Me is healthy ageing and that includes the wellbeing of every part of our body and soul. I would like to ask you, why are you so fascinated with the science of the brain?
When I began in psychiatry, we began to unpack how psychiatric issues were related to the brain. About ten years in, I became addicted to the brain and brain science. I spent 10 years writing a book called “The User’s Guide to the Brain,” which I tried to make understandable. It included all the stuff that we were learning about the brain as the 80s and 90s rolled along.
So you saw the manifestations of some of the challenges in psychiatry, and you asked, “How is it working?”
Exactly. We were beginning to move from psychoanalysis more into neuropsychiatry and brain science. Not just with medicine, but with understanding of what the brain was up to. We wanted to know how this related to clinical presentation and the sense of wellbeing.
It’s a holistic thing to think about. The whole community of Sixty and Me is represented by women ages 50 and over. We have quite a lot of women in different countries as well, so we’re all at different places in this journey of ageing.
But one thing that we all think about in our 60’s is living a healthy life for as long as we can.Alzheimer’s, dementia, depression and other brain related illnesses are big issues for us. You’ve written eight books published in 14 languages—that’s a grand achievement.
You have a book called “Spark,” which I’d like to ask you about. I think that is where you start to develop a connection between exercise and brain health. Can you share that with us?
Actually, it starts much earlier than that with our attention deficit disorder books back in the 80s and 90s. It was then we began to write that one of our major recommendations for improving your attention system was exercise.
Then I began to really follow the topic of exercise of the brain and began to speak about it in the late 90s. I discovered that there was real connection there that we had known for some time, but people weren’t really aware of it.
So I discovered this school in Naperville, Illinois which had an amazing way of looking at exercise and fitness for their kids. They had some of the highest performing kids in the world. This led me to write Spark, and I read a lot of materials researching all valid information out there.
I love that about your book, you are actually connecting research.
At that point in the mid-2000 most of the work had been done on ageing. We knew that exercise was a good way to prevent cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease, and there are many, many studies looking at these all over the world.
That was the major driver at first. But then it got into how this promotes education possibilities in all ages and especially the kids. When it got into treating depression, anxiety, attention problems and even addictions, I became completely fascinated with the topic.
There’s a belief that the ageing brain isn’t changeable. People think that it’s all downhill from your 50’s onward. Can you talk about how that isn’t the case?
I know many women think, myself included, “Exercise? You’ve got to be joking! I’m 65 and I’m over that.” Seriously, who wants to start exercising when you’ve made it to 60? But why is exercise important?
Most of the big studies early on were conducted with people in the average age of 69, or 65, etc., showing remarkable changes in their brain. They showed brain growth rather than brain erosion as well as improved cognitive abilities, especially for women.
I have a whole chapter in my book about women, because there is so much that we know about especially concerning the post-menopausal stage. We know that exercise is a way to prevent erosion of the brain, cognitive decline and Alzheimer’s disease as well as all the other problems that we face as we age.
There are many studies looking at this and showing that women improve about 10 – 15 % on their cognitive scores and their brains grow. We know this now and have unpacked it to a T.
Of course, all of that relates also to stress, social isolation and depression which are things that happen to women in their 60’s. All the transitional events seem to happen in your 60’s—husbands are passing, children are leaving home, etc.—so you need all your resilience to cope with that sometimes.
Tell us a little about the type of exercise you are talking about. Is it about doing a couple of miles a day or 10 000 steps? What’s the optimal combination?
Everything works: yoga, taichi, Zumba, aerobics, training, running, biking, swimming, climbing—all those things you can begin with. You also mentioned a very critical element which is social connections.
I’m working with another group out of Stanford in Silicon Valley that are looking at ageing using exercise and making small tribes. They implement social connection to prevent morbidity or illness as we age.
We’re working specifically with people who are over 66, and we see that the isolation is huge. If you combine that with exercise, you have a big bonus—especially if it’s done outside.
At Sixty and Me we have created one of many communities that are forming for older women. Through these online communities we are beginning to realize that we are not on this journey alone. It’s important to connect at the levels that also add value, like exercise—go with friends to the gym or go on a walk with someone.
I know you say that you should exercise before a stressful activity. If you exercise before you have to deal with an intense situation, it’s good for you. Can you talk a bit about that? How does exercise help if you want to go for a job interview or want to feel confident and strong?
Think about what exercise does psychologically—it makes you feel good, it boosts your mood and self-confidence, especially when you accomplish the goal you have set for yourself. It also changes the chemistry in your brain which you aren’t aware of.
We don’t feel the norepinephrine and dopamine increase, but we see its results because our attention is much better and our motivation is much higher. I always say about exercise that—no matter the age—it’s like taking a little bit of Ritalin and a little bit of Prozac.
This means that exercise boosts those same chemicals that those psychiatric drugs do. Your attention is a little bit better, your retention is much better, and your mood is a lot brighter. So you are ready to face the challenges ahead.
That actually does touch on the topic of depression. I remember reading, though I haven’t read your book “Spark,” that you talk about how exercise helps with depression and how exercise is better than taking any medication. It’s equal to the benefit of a drug.
Right. And it doesn’t have side effects, except wonderful physical state. What I think and talk about is that exercise is primarily useful for the brain. The side effects are the physical positives in terms of blood pressure, heart health, brain health and overall physical health in your body. Truly, exercise keeps you going.
One can start in middle age and the results are incredibly optimistic. I have a whole series of slides showing that people who start and stay with exercise keep living into their 90’s and 100’s. And they are living well, not just making it.
I’m glad you mentioned that.
I teach the Positive Psychology class at the University of Pennsylvania every year and talk about wellbeing. Wellbeing is definitely where exercise puts you. Then if you add that to a spinning class or a walking group or to a Zumba class or Yoga, the results are even grander. People are doing Yoga a lot more. 10% of the US are doing one episode of Yoga a week, which is great.
Ten percent? That is wonderful!
We have a Yoga product. When we started Sixty and Me, we didn’t know what people would want, but it turned out everyone was very interested in Yoga. So we did a gentle Yoga and a chair Yoga because there are people with mobility issues. It’s still really hard though; it’s exercise, and it works.
Yes, and it gets your brain going. And now we are getting real studies—not just from India, like we did in the past, where they seem to have a reason for getting those positive results.
We are using techniques of brain imaging and different measures, and we see that exercise is a very powerful tool that affects the brain. Yoga exercise raises the same chemicals and brings about similar changes to what aerobic exercise or weightlifting bring about.
When talking about meditation, you mentioned that it’s illogical to think of it being a benefit if you’re putting the focus on exercise. Can you talk a bit about that?
Think about what meditation does. In my recent books I teach that exercise uses more brain cells than any other activity. With meditation, people think you are clearing your brain, when actually, you are turning your brain on in a very dramatic way.
With meditation you’re focusing your mind, and you’re getting your different networks to work better together. A lot of information has been coming out in the past four to five years, which I am excited about, concerning both exercise and meditation.
Research shows that those activities help various networks in the brain to get aligned more. This is an important are as we age because one of the things that happens as the years go by is that our networks get discombobulated a little bit.
We end up into what’s called the default mode network, which is a state of daydream. We think only about ourselves, about things we haven’t done, or we are get anxious and depressed. So exercise and meditation are great ways that help us get out of that state.
I’m so glad there are people like you who have the passion about brain science, to write about it and share it with the world. You have a very active Facebook page where you promote or publish articles on new discoveries, as well as information about new projects you’re working on—in addition to the books you are probably still refining.
I have a wonderful assistant from MIT who is in the social media. She finds really relevant articles from all over the world about exercise, meditation, being outside, and various self-promoting things. We mainly focus on how all of this impacts our brains.
I am not surprised that there are so many people interested in this topic right now. The Boomer community consists of men and women over 55 and is a huge part of society. We are probably going to be around for the next 30/40 years. We are not going anywhere, so this information is super important.
Let me ask, which of your books do you suggest people start with?
I would start with “Spark,” and then I would look at my newest book called “Go Wild.” It incorporates how we should be living as hunter-gatherers whose genes we still have.
My last question for you is, how do we motivate people to get out and exercise?
One is I would recommend is for people to learn about the benefits. Learn about how exercise changes things. Learn about how it makes you less depressed, less anxious, less stressed and more loveable—because it increases your oxytocin—and more connected to the universe and to each other.
Exercise really does work. This is why I think that “Spark” is the first step. It shows you the possibilities, and you can do it yourself by just getting outside and walking or running or joining a TaiChi class. It’s amazing.
That’s a wonderful way to close. The best gift that you can give yourself as an older person is to actually go and do something that is completely free. There is no excuse to run away from exercise.
Another advice is to take a look at your book, especially the chapters you’ve mentioned on ageing and women. You have not made any of this up, you are an expert in this field, and you’ve been researching it for years. I’m very happy to have met you and been inspired by your work.
Thank you very much, John.
What is your favorite form of exercise? Do you get to do it often? Have you found any particular form of exercise to be easier for women over 60? Please share your thoughts!
Tags Brain Health