Why Exercise Makes You Smarter
We know that running, cycling, and hiking burn fat and improve cardiovascular health. But Harvard psychiatry professor John J. Ratey says these are secondary benefits, akin to getting frequent-flier miles when you travel the world.
In his new book, Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, Ratey claims that the primary benefit of aerobic activity is to improve brain function. This refutes traditional wisdom, which holds that our brains are hardwired computers, unable to be improved upon.
Among Ratey's findings: Aerobic exercise produces proteins that enhance thought processes; relieves clinical depression; and makes you a lot smarter. Co-written by former Outside senior editor Eric Hagerman, Spark is mercifully short...
"THERE'S A LOT of bullshit in spiritual circles," my meditation teacher is telling me. It's a leafy fall afternoon in Massachusetts's Berkshire Hills, and we're sitting in the café of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, one of the nation's premier destinations for physical and spiritual renewal. I've spent much of the last week on the Insight Meditation and Mindfulness Yoga Retreat, a five-day program that I'd hoped would turn me, a meditation virgin, into an Enlightened One.
Of course, I expected to encounter some BS along the way, which I did. "Oh, is that your Sanskrit name?" I overheard a woman who was photographing and interpreting people's auras in the café ask of a customer on my third night. Later, I entered the men's whirlpool room to find a beefy dude chanting naked and proud in the center of the bubbles. (This didn't stop me from taking my soak.)
Thankfully, my teacher—my guru—Larry Rosenberg, 76, is a straight shooter. Raised in Brooklyn, he's spent the past 35 years studying various Buddhist approaches to meditation. His instruction is frank and lively—Mr. Miyagi meets Mel Brooks. This afternoon, he tells me that pairing insight meditation (a.k.a. vipassana) and breath-focused mindfulness yoga is a model that's becoming increasingly popular. The combination was intrinsic before, as he puts it, "Western leotard yoga amputated the meditation."
It's certainly feeling natural to me, though I've come to understand that awareness isn't something you obtain—it's a way of living. It's a practice. Here at Kripalu, where some 450 guests are enrolled in various workshops, my class of about 20 apprentice meditators sits in a carpeted room for three hours in the morning and then two in the afternoon. Each session begins with meditation, transitions into yoga (led by Rosenberg's co-teacher, Matthew Daniell), then returns to meditation. Vipassana is agonizingly simple: Focus on breathing. When the mind wanders, coax it back to the breath. The result: a cessation of the imagining and remembering and obsessing that keep us from being in the moment. Awareness.
Or not. Usually, my sits go something like this: OK, so breathe in. And out. In and WOW-what-a-cool-weekend-I'm-going-to-have-with-that-DINNER-and-then-PARTY-and-big-bike-ride-OH-WAIT-I-need-an-inner-tube-CRAP-pump-is-broken... oh, oops. Damn.
The yoga helped—I'd always do better after the poses. Not talking also made a big difference. Kripalu doesn't offer the rigidly silent retreats found at insight meditation centers, but Rosenberg encouraged us to go quiet. So I did: for 30 hours early on, then 24 later, and generally spoke less than my wife would believe possible.
I also ran. I worried that the adrenaline kick would make a quiet mind impossible, but Rosenberg kept saying awareness is something to bring into every waking moment. So off I went in the early evenings on wooded trails, trying to run mindfully but inevitably falling into my pattern of thinking about everything except that which was right before me.
Then it happened. On my last evening at the retreat, I bolted two miles up to a ridge, stopping to take in the autumn forest. I closed my eyes and found my breath. In, out. In, out ... I can't say how long it lasted—ten seconds? a minute?—and I can't say how it felt, because I didn't feel anything. I was just there. Right there. For the first time ever.