1-Page Cheatsheet: John Ratey’s Spark

spark-book-coverI started documenting and summarizing books using a concept I called the “Good Life guides”. Here are some examples. How can we take a nonfiction book’s lessons and apply them to live a good life?

However, the guides were too time-consuming and I wasn’t enjoying the creation process, so I’m trying something simpler and more straightforward where I take the most interesting findings, facts, and snippets, and pack them into a “1-page cheatsheet”.

Comes out to about 1000 words, which is closer to 3 pages, but oh well :)


I chose Spark because it came highly recommended by Steve Pavlina and I’m always looking for motivation to exercise more.

John Ratey is a psychiatry prof at Harvard Med School. His book Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain [Amazon] is about the tremendous benefits of exercise, specifically cardio-intensive activities like running and biking. Through a combination of interviews, frontline work as a clinic researcher, and extensive analysis of the latest scientific literature, it concludes that frequent, moderate-to-high intensity cardio permanently improves not only physical health, but mental and psychological health too.


1. Exercise helps your body utilize energy more efficiently

One of the ways exercise optimizes energy usage is by triggering the production of more receptors for insulin. In the body, having more receptors means better use of blood glucose and stronger cells. Best of all, the receptors stay there, which means the newfound efficiency gets built in.

2. Regular exercise helps you:

A. Be more social

Studies show that by adding physical activity to our lives, we become more socially active—it boosts our confidence and provides an opportunity to meet people. The vigor and motivation that exercise brings helps us establish and maintain social connections.

B. Calm down

As for the trait, the majority of studies show that aerobic exercise significantly alleviates symptoms of any anxiety disorder. But exercise also helps the average person reduce normal feelings of anxiousness.

C. Fight depression

In Britain, doctors now use exercise as a first-line treatment for depression, but it’s vastly underutilized in the United States, and that’s a shame.

D. Improve focus

Paradoxically, one of the best treatment strategies for ADHD involves establishing extremely rigid structure. Over the years, I’ve heard countless parents offer the same observation about their ADHD children: Johnny is so much better when he’s doing tae kwon do.

E. Fight unhealthy addictions

In smokers, just five minutes of intense exercise can be beneficial. Nicotine is an oddball among addictive substances as it works as a stimulant and a relaxant at the same time. Exercise fights the urge to smoke because in addition to smoothly increasing dopamine it also lowers anxiety, tension, and stress levels—the physical irritability that makes people so grouchy when they’re trying to quit. Exercise can fend off cravings for fifty minutes and double or triple the interval to the next cigarette.

F. Make better decisions

…the participants reported that an entire range of behavior related to self-regulation took a turn for the better. Not only did they steadily increase their visits to the gym, they reported that they smoked less, drank less caffeine and alcohol, ate more healthy food and less junk food, curbed impulse spending and overspending, and lost their tempers less often.

G. Have healthier babies

Exercise seems to be more than just not harmful, though. In one study, Clapp compared thirty-four newborns of exercisers to thirty-one of sedentary mothers five days after birth. There’s only so much you can do to gauge behavior at this early stage, but the babies from the exercise group “performed” better on two of six tests: they were more responsive to stimuli and better able to quiet themselves following a disturbance of sound or light. Clapp sees this as significant because it suggests that infants of exercising mothers are more neurologically developed than their counterparts from sedentary mothers.

H. Live longer!

If your brain isn’t actively growing, then it’s dying. Exercise is one of the few ways to counter the process of aging because it slows down the natural decline of the stress threshold.

[A subject I’m personally very interested in. Here are my resources on living forever]

3. How much and what types of exercise?

#1: AEROBIC. Exercise four days a week, varying from thirty minutes to an hour, at 60 to 65 percent of your maximum heart rate.

#2: STRENGTH. Hit the weights or resistance machines twice a week, doing three sets of your exercises at weights that allows you to do ten to fifteen repetitions in each set.

#3: BALANCE AND FLEXIBILITY. Focus on these abilities twice a week for thirty minutes or so. Yoga, Pilates, tai chi, martial arts, and dance all involve these skills, which are important to staying agile.

#4: MENTAL EXERCISE: KEEP LEARNING. My advice here is to keep challenging your mind. You know by now that exercise prepares your neurons to connect, while mental stimulation allows your brain to capitalize on that readiness. It’s no coincidence that study after study shows that the more education you have, the more likely you are to hang onto your cognitive abilities and stave off dementia

Doing a mix of low, medium, and high intensity exercise is important as they all do different (good) things for your brain & body


  • It turns out that marijuana, exercise, and chocolate all activate these same receptors in the brain.
  • As an illustration of the power of drugs, consider that while sex increases dopamine levels 50 to 100 percent, cocaine sends dopamine skyrocketing 300 to 800 percent beyond normal levels.
  • The brain is made up of more than 50 percent fat, so fats are important too, as long as they’re the right kind. Trans fat, animal fat, and hydrogenated oils gum up the works, but the omega-3s found in fish are enormously beneficial
  • The one proven way to live longer is to consume fewer calories—at least if you’re a lab rat. In experiments in which rodents eat 30 percent fewer calories, they live up to 40 percent longer than animals allowed to eat as much as they want.
  • Low-carb diets may help you lose weight, but they’re not good for your brain. Whole grains have complex carbohydrates that supply a steady flow of energy rather than the spike and crash of simple sugars, and they’re necessary to transport amino acids such as tryptophan into the brain.
  • Vitamin D is being recognized not only for its importance in strengthening bones but also as a measure against cancer and Parkinson’s. I would recommend 1000 IU (international units) of vitamin D…I would also recommend taking vitamin B with at least 800 mg of folate, which improves memory and processing speed.

Here’s a list of all 1-page cheatsheets, and a list of all books!

Hi! I write about habits and spirituality and random whatevers. Click here to see the daily habits that I track. Find me on Twitter @kgao.