Spark Summary and Review

by John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman
  Has Spark by John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman been sitting on your reading list? Pick up the key ideas in the book with this quick summary. If the prehistoric had been couch potatoes, humans would have never evolved. Because they were always on the go, always moving, our ancestors were able to adapt and evolve. They had to hop from waterhole to waterhole, hunt animals for food, and flee whenever they were in danger. It is safe to say that early humans had to change location quite often.  Today, however, we spend most of our time on earth stuck in front of our computers, sitting on a chair and moving nothing but our fingers. And while at first, this might seem like progress, in reality, our lack of activity can have catastrophic effects on our brains. But why is physical activity and movement in general so important for the health of our brain? As you will learn from our summary, our DNA is still telling our brain that we should move. As a result, in order to remain healthy and to function normally, the brain requires constant physical activity. Here are the key ideas that you will learn from our summary of John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman’s spark:
  • Why having a skipping rope might help you quit that Chardonnay;
  • How physicians learned about depression from anti-allergy medicine; and
  • The effect that a broken bone can have on your brain.

SPARK CHAPTER #1: Exercising is essential if you want to have a healthy body, but also for a healthy brain.

You probably already know that by lifting weights your muscles become more toned. But did you know that the brain works in a similar way? Your brain needs a lot of exercises to become stronger as it is just as malleable as your muscles. You can think of your brain as being similar to your other muscles. This means that an active brain will become stronger, while an inactive one will become weaker. In order to process new information and allow you to learn new things, your brain cells will forge stronger connections. But what’s even more incredible is that these connections can be facilitated by physical exercise, which can prep your brain to become more effective at assimilating new information. But how does physical exercise help us have a stronger brain? Our ability to create new connections and learn new things, as well as our brain infrastructure, are all aspects that can be boosted by physical exercise. Our brains and the ways in which we exercise are connected because exercise can greatly increase the levels of neurotransmitters, such as serotonin and dopamine, which are essential for creating new connections. But our brain cells also benefit from physical exercise. When we work hard to tone our muscles, specific kinds of protein are produced by our organs. These proteins are also referred to as growth factors and they travel to the brain, where they improve the brain cells’ capacity to make connections. The building blocks that allow us to make new connections and to produce new brain cells are also fueled by these growth factors. But the most important elements when it comes to improving our mood and to become more motivated are serotonin and dopamine. These neurotransmitters are generally released every time we do physical exercise and are extremely important for our well-being. Therefore, it is safe to say that your ability to focus and to learn new things improves the more you exercise! When a lot of students were struggling with English literacy at Naperville Central High School, the school decided that, in order to improve their reading comprehension, the students should attend extra lessons. When this strategy proved to be ineffective, the school decided to try something new and to explore the effects of exercise on learning. Thus, the students performed a few vigorous physical exercises right before they started each class. This exercise program implemented by the school was called Zero Hour PE and because the brain works better after physical exercise, the group’s reading comprehension was greatly improved. While the classmates who only attended extra classes saw an improvement of 10 percent, the students who exercised saw a 17 percent improvement rate. So, it is safe to say that exercise has a lot of benefits and boosting the capabilities of our brains is one of them. Read the next chapter to learn more about the stress-alleviating properties of exercise.

SPARK CHAPTER #2: Instead of reaching for a bottle of wine every time you feel stressed, try doing some jumping jacks.

Imagine you are going through home renovations and you’ve hired a contractor. Although you knew beforehand that your home would become messy and torn, you feel very stressed about it. This is exactly what a mother of four named Susan went through. Her story is a perfect example of how a lot of health issues can be generated by stress. So here is the whole story. Because Susan wanted to renovate her kitchen, she hired a contractor. Unfortunately, the project became extremely difficult and time-consuming, so Susan started to feel overwhelmed. The people who were working on her kitchen remodel were quite inconsiderate and always made a mess. In order to calm herself down, Susan began to drink a glass of wine. Soon enough, Susan had made it a habit to pour herself one glass of wine each day before noon. Luckily, Susan realized that she was on the brink of developing a serious drinking problem, so she started to exercise instead. While the physical exercise itself is extremely effective because it works our muscles, performing exercise can also help us cope and control our psychological stress. Because the prehistoric humans had to take action, run away, fight, or move whenever they had a serious problem, it is quite difficult for us to wait out stressful situations. As a result, jogging or lifting weights can help us overcome our biological need to do something. While stress can have negative effects on our health whenever it gets out of control, we can learn how to manage it and control it through exercise. When we do physical activities, some of our brain cells become damaged due to certain molecular byproducts. This sounds like a bad thing but it is not. In fact, this triggers a repair mechanism that makes our brain cells tougher and more equipped to deal with future damage. As a result, our brain becomes stronger and more resistant to everyday stressors. When Susan felt like things were getting out of control, she decided to seek professional advice. She discussed her issues with a psychiatrist, who told her to replace her glass of Chardonnay with physical exercise. Because she really liked the jumping rope, whenever she felt stressed, Susan chose to do this type of exercise. The physical exertion proved to be extremely effective as it calmed her down and she was able to give up on her drinking habit. Throughout the next chapter, we will discuss why exercise is an efficient tool to battle depression.
We read dozens of other great books like Spark, and summarised their ideas in this article called Work Ethic
Check it out here!

SPARK KEY IDEA #3: When depression takes over your mind and your body, you can alleviate your mood with exercise.

Have you ever had a long-lasting depression that left you feeling down for months? Did you seek professional help? If you have, your therapist might have asked you about your past experiences and how they might affect your current issues, including your depressive episode. In the past, depression was thought to be a psychological issue that has nothing to do with our body. But now, more and more physicians are discovering how our bodies can affect our moods. In the 1950s, doctors who were treating patients with tuberculosis noticed that a certain drug that was commonly used to treat this infectious disease was making patients feel cheerful. Certain allergy drugs had similar effects. Therefore, physicians started to understand that, if drugs that affect the body can improve the mood of people suffering from depression, then maybe these affections have a physical cause as well. Thus scientists began to seek biological explanations for psychological issues and they manage to uncover a connection between physical exercise and mood. Everyone feels sad or grouchy at times without suffering from depression. If the symptoms go away on their own, the person might not require medical attention. However, when we suffer from clinical depression or when our mood doesn’t seem to improve, physical exercise can be extremely beneficial. When we feel down, we generally lack certain morphine-like-substances also known as endorphins. These endorphins are produced by our bodies whenever we exercise and they give us a feeling of euphoria. Bill, one of the author’s patients, was 50 years old and 20 pounds overweight. He felt that he need to change something and he decided to take on jogging and to go on a diet. Bill was extremely surprised to realize that doing exercise helped him be less critical of himself and others and less grumpy. Although Bill was never clinically depressed, he was often in a bad mood and whenever he went jogging he felt much happier. If you needed one extra reason to get off the couch and start moving, now you have it. Exercise is a great way to shed extra pounds, but it can also improve your mood greatly and brighten your outlook.
Developing an exercise discipline has many other positive flow-on effects to the rest of your life - check out our piece on work ethic to find out why you should never miss a day at the gym.

SPARK CHAPTER #4: Physical exercise can help people who suffer from attention deficit disorder.

Do you ever have a difficult time focusing when trying to read something or when trying to understand abstract concepts? If you do, then your brain’s reward center is to blame. This part of the brain is responsible for our ability to focus and it can often play tricks on us. This region of the brain is also called the nucleus accumbens and it consists of many brain cells, or dopamine neurons, that emit the reward hormone (dopamine). This hormone is transmitted to the brain’s prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for focus, thinking, and self-control. People who suffer from ADHD (attention deficit hyperactivity disorder), need a little help to activate their brain’s reward center and exercise is a perfect way to achieve this. Because the attention systems of people who suffer from ADHD are faulty and don’t run optimally, their brain is having difficulty activating the rewards center. Therefore, focusing on tasks without feeling rewarded becomes extremely difficult. But that doesn’t mean that it’s impossible for people with ADHD to find different ways to motivate themselves. The only thing that they need is a little boost, and exercise can do just that.  Let’s look at Sam’s situation in order to understand these concepts a little better. Sam is 36 and he is a successful venture capitalist despite having had a difficult youth. When he was young, his family would punish him quite often because they thought that he was a troublemaker. In school, however, a lot of teachers noticed that he was extremely smart but they also thought that he should stop taking drugs, stop rebelling, and change his attitude. Although Sam didn’t like authority and he wouldn’t focus most of the time, he sometimes showed everyone that he was capable of great things. When his parents told him that they would only allow him to get his driver’s license if he improved his grades, Sam made an effort and jumped from 1.5 to 3.5 GPA. So how did Sam manage this? One thing that was really helpful was the fact that he started to exercise. Because he enrolled in a serious athletics program, Sam would sometimes run several miles a day. This intensive physical activity helped Sam focus and succeed professionally.

SPARK CHAPTER #5: No matter how old you are, you should always avoid inactivity. When you don’t exercise, your body and your mind start to degenerate.

It’s a wonderful summer’s day, the sun is shining and you are eager to go for a swim. Unfortunately, you had already planned to spend the day indoors and read a very interesting book in order to keep your mind sharp. But do you really need to choose between reading a book and swimming? When we start to age, our mind and our body become intimately connected. If our life is filled with poor lifestyle choices, like drinking lots of alcohol, not exercising, and smoking, our chances of developing degenerative brain disorders increase. On the other hand, good lifestyle choices, such as eating healthy food and doing regular exercise, will keep our bodies and brains healthy. When our bones become fragile and porous, we are prone to developing osteoporosis. Luckily, this condition can be avoided by lifting weights and doing other types of physical activities. Morning runs and hikes can keep our blood vessels healthy, including those that are found in our brain. Blood pressure is also lowered by jogging and similar activities can prevent blood clots and fatty deposits from forming. The author’s mother was a very active woman. She would shovel snow, walk to church, tend her bountiful garden and she even took up swimming and golf despite her age. Unfortunately, within a couple of years, she broke her hip twice. After her first injury, the lack of activity had a terrible effect on her mind. As her body slowed down, so did her mind and soon enough she would prefer to watch soap operas instead of playing bridge. Her overall condition became even worse after she broke her hip a second time. She now had difficulties telling what was real and what wasn’t and she was hallucinating about characters from the soap operas that she was watching. Her situation shows us that physical activity is essential for the mind as much as it is for the body. It is clear to us that the woman’s decline happened because her health issues forced her to become inactive. So, don’t postpone going our for a hike just because you had planned to read a book. You can read the book on a rainy day, and enjoy the sunny weather while it lasts.


What is the key message of John J. Ratey & Eric Hagerman’s Spark? Exercise is essential for both our physical and mental fitness. The connection between our bodies and our minds is extremely powerful. By being active, we can alleviate the symptoms of many psychological issues and we can prevent a lot of serious conditions. Exercise can help us cope with stress, with bad moods, and it can improve our ability to focus and to learn new things. Valuable advice: Instead of pouring yourself a glass of wine, try doing some physical exercise. If you have an addictive personality, you can try replacing some of your bad habits with physical activities. We’ve already discussed how going swimming, hiking, or jumping rope can help us quit unhealthy vices such as drinking. If you are strong enough to change your habits, you’ll notice that as soon as you start being active, you will immediately start feeling accomplished and more relaxed.
Suggested further reading: Exercise can kick-start the virtuous cycle that improves both your health and wokr life. Check out our article on work ethic to find out why.
Suggested further reading: Find more great ideas like those contained in this summary in this article we wrote on Work Ethic