My current job is
Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical
School. That is my title - but my job really is a
mission that I have been on for the past five years: to bring about
more exercise and play in our children's lives.
I have travelled the
world, talking with teachers, administrators,
legislators, governors, presidents of countries, and the like.
Initially, this was a hard pull, but it is beginning to take
I have been at the head
of teaching people about Attention Deficit Disorder
(ADD), along with Ned Hallowell, my writing partner
for three books on ADD. We have brought this important condition to
the attention of the world.
I have been what I call a
research synthesiser of neuroscience, trying to
translate this for the layman as well.
There has been an
increasing awareness of ADD, partly fed by my book
in 1993 with Dr Hallowell, Driven to Distraction, which
opened the door to everyone's being aware of ADD.
I think the whole issue
is that many kids are over-treated, and many kids
are under-treated. They have been arguing about this for many
Yes, people talk about
having kids on medicine, and the significant issues
there may be in changing their brain or certainly changing their
labelling. But what about the opposite: where kids are failures and
depressed, and get into substance abuse or worse? The ravage of
depression on the brain is great. Not filling one's potential is
I came to write Spark* because I have always
been interested in the effect of exercise on activity of the
brain. I could see how important exercise was for
many of my patients, especially to ward off depression and to help
control their problems with attention and mood. I had outlined the
book in 1995, but began to really pour into it when I noticed the
school in Naperville, Illinois.
What caught my attention
is that three per cent of their children were
overweight, when the national average in the United
States was 33 per cent. They had also finished number one in the
world in science, and number six in math, in an international
math-and-science test where all the countries in the world
competed. This was quite incredible, and propelled me to begin
My findings are that
exercise is probably the most important way that we can regulate
our emotions, as well as optimise our cognitive
Yes, exercise can wear
out your joints if you do it inappropriately. Now,
even with runners, we are talking about using various thin-soled
shoes or barefoot running. Because this helps you do the proper
running which is a forefront strike as opposed to a heel strike. We
are getting smarter. Here at Harvard the whole revolution
Does regular exercise
make you live a longer life? Yes, of course, from
your body's perspective as well as from your brain's. If you start
exercising in middle age, you will push back cognitive decline by
ten or fifteen years. Several Alzheimer groups say that, if you
start exercising and continue three to four times a week, you will
cut your risk of Alzheimer's disease in half.
Many schools throughout
the United States and Canada have adopted Spark, some as
a basis for their programmes. We have a group of people who are
devoted to helping schools change. I have three Ph.D students
working with me currently, to go in and educate the faculty,
administration, and parents of schools that are interested.
Other countries have
bought into this. President Ma Ying-jeou of Taiwan
read the book some years ago, and had me come over and lecture at
11 universities. He immediately increased physical education time
in his schools from two hours to three hours a week, and directed
that my book be translated for younger people, elementary
school-age kids, and now that is being done in Taiwan: 40,000
copies have been ordered by the government to distribute so that,
early in their lives, children can begin to understand the benefits
of exercise and play.
I grew up being a tennis
player - a nationally ranked one - but now I'm a
If you are good at
games, you could, if you were also interested in
being a brain box, be a better brain box. This is true for many
reasons. We know that being fit improves your intellectual capacity
as well as your emotional regulation.
You British call it
sport. We call it exercise. Sport means athletics
and competition, and that is one form of exercise. It's the most
common form, perhaps, certainly the most public form. In the United
States, we are looking more at exercise as an everyday thing for
people. That is the ideal: to make people everyday athletes.
Exercise is not just
taking a stroll, but pushing your heart rate up,
pushing yourself, exerting yourself, getting out of breath, and
It has components of
athletics: putting your mind to it and pushing
beyond yourself. Certainly, there's "muscular Christianity". St
Paul was an example of someone who really was striving. He had to
strive against his own self and against others, and that is what
you have to do when you exercise: push yourself beyond.
I have always been a
"small r" religious person, raised in the "big R"
religion: Catholic school, and so on. However, after college it was
the "small r", meaning I was religious without an affiliation. My
religion is the belief in humankind's possibilities, and a very
firm belief that a purposeful, driven life toward helping others is
much more important than any "big R" affiliation.
Of course I'll be
watching the Olympics. I will be interested in
gymnastics, track and field, soccer (my favourite sport), and a
variety of others.
I am divorced, and have
two grown and "launched" children, meaning that
they are on their own, with their own lives and their own health
insurance. Katherine is 29, soon to be 30, and Jessie is 31, soon
to be 32. Jessie is married and works with a non-profit-making
organisation, and Catherine works as a social worker with juvenile
delinquents in the inner-city of Boston. Two failed marriages I
would say are my biggest regrets.
I grew up in the
steel-mill belt, and my big ambition was for
everyone to get out of the steel mills and to get a college
education. My siblings and I were the first to get a college
education in our families. Both of my parents went only to the
seventh or eighth grade, if that.
I think without a doubt
the most important choice I made was to become an MD rather than a
Ph.D., because this has allowed me to really get
much more involved with patients quicker, and has allowed me a
range of opportunity to do research, as well as to learn more about
people and myself along the way.
I'd like to be remembered
for helping change the world. We have done this
with our work in ADD. Now I'm helping to change the way people look
at exercise and play, realising that it is an important component
of our lives. The Greeks knew that one cannot just be nurturing the
mind; one has to also work on the body to have a chance at being a
complete and perfect human being.
Easily the most important
person for me was Dostoevsky. In my junior year in
high school, I read Crime and
Punishment, and it changed my life and made me much
more interested in philosophy. I studied philosophy and literature,
which I devoured passionately for the next chapters of my life.
I remember a sermon given
in college by the Head of our Philosophy Department (he was also a
Professor of Religion), talking about forgiving and
forgetting, and the differences between them. That is something
that I have used a lot in my work.
My favourite place is
Tuscany. It used to be Florence, but now Florence
has gone the way of most euro-bound places, and it's not as nearly
as quaint as it used to be.
My favourite part of the
Bible is the Old Testament in general, and the book
of Job and the Psalms in particular.
The split between the
rich and poor, which is only getting bigger and
bigger - this is something that really makes me angry.
I'm happiest when I am
fully engaged in whatever I am doing.
I do not pray on a
regular basis. I think thoughts a lot, especially
when people are in need. I try to send good karma to people that
are struggling, friends of mine, people that have lost someone or
who are in a bad way physically or otherwise.
It is hard to find real
true hope, because the one area, of course, that we
all look to is the development of science and technology, and it is
the same thing that is killing us.
I guess I would like to
have a conversation in church with William
Shakespeare, and find out how this man was able to
do what he did.
Professor Ratey was talking
to Terence Handley MacMath.
*Spark: The revolutionary new science of exercise and the
brain (Little, Brown,