A Secret Ingredient to Peaceful, Happy Mornings!

Being Convinced of What We “Know”

I always knew that exercise was good for my brain, the same way I knew that flossing was good for my teeth. But it wasn’t until I was 33 and saw an x-ray of my teeth that I saw exactly why my dentist kept nagging me about flossing; all of my cavities are in between my teeth. From the moment I saw that x-ray, I became a religious flosser.

I had a similar, “religious” experience over exercise recently. It came from a book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain, by John J. Ratey, M.D. The book is packed with such clear and convincing evidence for the power of exercise over the brain that I immediately started getting up earlier every morning…to get me and my kids moving before school.

exercise and the brain

We took this picture on one of our morning walk’s last week. My three year-old is the one who noticed our “giant” shadows on the street. I think this might be one of my favorite “family” pictures!

This is a major commitment for me; I’m the world’s Worst Morning Person! But Dr. Ratey managed to reach into my brain and flip a switch, just like my dental x-ray switched the flip for flossing. And, just like my grandma’s brain did when saw an x-ray of her lungs filled with cancer; she immediately lost the desire to touch another cigarette and ultimately won her battle over lung cancer.

Sometimes, information is so powerful that it inspires us to make an instantaneous commitment to change our behavior!

Dr. Ratey pulled together hundreds of scientific studies. Each one clearly supports the positive effects of exercise on the brain! He specifically addressed the impact on learning, mood, depression, anxiety, ADHD, addiction, hormonal changes in women, and aging.

He described the chemicals that our brains manufacture when we elevate our heart rate. The details provided plenty of convincing information for my brain to “flip the switch.” For example, my brain learned:

  • About the seeming magical effects of these chemicals. Dr. Ratey referred to one chemical, in particular, as “Miracle-Gro” for the brain. Why wouldn’t my brain want “Miracle-Gro?”
  •  That these magic chemicals help me learn more, faster.
  •  That these chemicals will keep me happy… and how they work.
  •  That exercise can enhance the benefits of medication; in many cases, it can replace medication.
  •  Most impressively, that physical exercise is the only known way to balance the chemicals inside of itself.

I knew of these benefits before. But, there is something powerful about discovering how it all works that made my commitment to daily exercise instantaneous. Granted, it’s only been a few weeks. I’m sure I’ll miss many days in the future, but I know the commitment is permanent because I felt this same switch before over flossing.

How It Has Worked for the Kids

For the last few weeks, we’ve taken the kids out for morning walks, before school. As we move, we can see them become happier and less reserved. We will challenge them to race to a mailbox or to the end of our driveway, and they take off running. By the time they reach their destination, they are smiling from ear to ear.

The 30-minute drive to school has never been more peaceful, but that’s hardly the biggest improvement we’ve seen.

My eight-year-old son had battled serious anxiety with ADHD. He is often in a funk when we arrive at school, groggy from the morning and anxious about the upcoming transition to school. As we exercise, however, we can almost see that funk lift from his shoulders. Walking transforms his demeanor. As a result, he has been perfectly content -and even happy- when we part ways each morning.

Late last week, his teacher stopped me in the hall to say that he’s been noticeably more social, content, and much more proactive about doing his work. (She had him last year, too.) It’s only the third week of school, but it definitely looks like he’s seeing benefits from the exercise.

My three-year-old daughter had major separation anxiety. She’s been going to “school” since she was an infant, but she’s always been clinging. We took her to visit the school a few days before the official “first day,” and she clung to me the whole time.

On the first day of school, we went for a walk. I noticed she became less clingy and more active the more she walked. By the time we arrived at school she didn’t hesitate at all when I left her. Day two and day three were the same.

On day four, it was raining outside. So, we stayed indoors. The kids bounced on a mattress we had lowered to the floor. They played music and ramped themselves up! I didn’t measure their heart rates, but I’m sure they were pumping harder from this workout than they did after our walks on the previous days. By the time we left the house, my daughter was ready to take over the world!

The separation at school that day was a piece of cake. When we entered the school building, *she* grabbed my hand and pulled me towards her classroom. (Usually, it’s the other way around!) She led the way and entered her classroom with an unmistakable aura of confidence! All four adults in the room noticed. One teacher said, “Wow, Mom, what did you put in her Wheaties this morning?”

“Exercise,” I said. The collective looks on their faces were priceless. Of course, I explained our new morning routine. There was no denying the effect exercise had on her that day.

My Plan for the School Year

Dr. Ratey’s book focused exclusively on adults. His “optimal” recommendation for adults was 30-40 minutes of aerobic activity, four-seven days per week. However, he shared many results from studies showing benefits from only a fraction of that time.

Since I didn’t want to fail at this initiative before we get it off the ground, I decided to start small. So, I settled on doing anything to get their heart rates up in the morning, even if it only for five minutes. Ultimately I think 15 minutes will be an ideal compromise with our morning routine.

We play upbeat music as they get dressed and eat their breakfast. This helps transition them from morning grogginess to physical activity. So far, we’ve had zero complaints and nothing but happy, more cooperative children.

Take the Challenge

I owe Dr. Ratey a huge debt of gratitude for his dedication in compiling, reviewing, analyzing, synthesizing, and organizing those hundreds of studies into his book! He has flooded my brain with evidence, and flipped a permanent switch that inspired a major commitment from me. My family has never had a better “first month of school” and I’m thrilled!

Do yourself and your family a favor…challenge yourself to do 5 minutes of aerobic activity every morning this week. Report back to me and let me know how it went. I look forward to hearing from you!

-Susan Kruger


EB 050217

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