Daily Archives: February 7, 2009

Exercise Lights A Spark


I recently finished reading John Ratey’s SPARK The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain

I suppose one mark of a well-written book is how powerful an impression it makes on the reader. The premise behind SPARK was not a surprise – I’ve heard John Ratey make his case at last Fall’s Learning & the Brain conference, and my years of dedicated swimming have already proved the points first hand. Rather, it was Ratey’s earnest discussion of how exercise boosts the brain, and his explanation of the biology, coupled with chapters covering everything from learning to stress to depression to attention deficit to hormones to aging, all the time with his practically begging us to take notice and don’t just sit there but DO SOMETHING about it, which got me all fired up in a good way!

Ratey begins by sharing the story of Naperville Central High School in Chicago, Illinois, which implemented a phys ed program based upon PE4Life that completely changed the dynamics of school gym class. Instead of a focus on sports teams, the focus became Getting & Staying Fit. A major component of the program was the use of heart rate monitors so students could exercise at the intensity level best for their individual health. This program wasn’t about competition or comparison, but simply about what was best for each student.

Two other important pieces of the program afforded students the opportunity for choice and control over their gym classes. There are close to twenty different activities from which students can choose as they build their fitness plan to cover four years of high school. Some of the activities have always been part of phys ed programs, such as basketball and volleyball, but a climbing wall and kayaking surely weren’t options when I went to high school. The activity that makes me smile widest is their use of DDR, which stands for Dance Dance Revolution.


When our oldest son was in high school, he and two friends had jobs at New Roc City demonstrating and teaching how to use the DDR machines. Of his four years in high school, he was the most fit during the time he worked at New Roc. With his friends, they tried to convince the director of their school’s athletic center to include DDR as one of the activities, but to no avail. They participated in contests, taking bus and trains (and cajoling parents to drive them) to areas in Queens, NY, that were known to have the best DDR machines, and shared video of their routines with other DDR aficionados.

Phil Lawler, the Director of PE4life Instruction and Outreach, testified before the United States House Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Community in May, 2007. You can read his testimony here. I am going to share this pdf with faculty at my school – not because I question our phys ed program, but because I think the adults in my school community could benefit from understanding the brain~body connection, and perhaps apply this to their own lives.