Ask Dr. Bortz
Fitness Matters, Summer 2008
Q. Dear Dr. Bortz,
I note with much interest a strong brain/exercise theme of the approaching May 31 conference of 50 Plus at Stanford. I definitely plan to attend, and I'm particularly excited that John Ratey will be talking, as I enjoyed his book very much. I will see you there, as I note that you are scheduled to close the program.
- Bella Saint, Denver
A. Dear Bella,
As I respond to you I am reading Ratey's book, Spark, too. I was surprised that his work was previously unknown to me as I am a committed brain exercise topic student for many years.
After my sabbatical in Africa with Richard Leakey in 1981, I wrote a paper "Physical Exercise as an Evolutionary Force" that was published in the Journal of Human Evolution. In it I made the proposition that the reason the human brain massively expanded after Lucy and her cousins left the jungle canopy, was that their exercise demands markedly increased. Their chimp cousins who remained behind in the jungle retain their Paleolithic brain size of 400g in contrast to today's human size of 1100g.
You may recall that Carl Cottman, to whom Ratey dedicates his book, sent his assistant to address our 50 plus group 2 years ago. She reported on their exciting work that exercise predictably releases a potent protein called brain growth factor. This compound is unquestionably connected with the growth in the size of the human brain.
On the other side of the divide, I read recently of a coral dwelling, primitive sea creature called the sea squirt. Its early life history is spent as a free moving animal, who scavenges for its food. Later in life it affixes itself to a coral shelf for the rest of its life and nourishes itself exclusively by ingesting what wanders by. Since it no longer has a requirement for independent movement, it simply extrudes its brain and becomes brainless.
Throughout all of nature there is an implicit relationship between brain size and movement. Parenthetically predators have larger brains than prey.
I was also particularly interested in Ratey's discussion of the physical activity program at Napier, Illinois school district. The 19,000 students there which used the PE4life protocol, noted extraordinary improvements in academic performance, school attendance and behavioral issues. This was of great interest to me, because our local school district of Santa Clara County, California has embarked on a similar protocol called "Fit for Learning" with the anticipation that it will mirror the results that Ratey describes in Naperville
Q. Dear Dr. Bortz,
With the great hullabaloo about the skyrocketing of medical costs, I wonder how we plan to manage the still higher expenditures which are expected when the obesity epidemic takes over.
- Barry Gerber, Los Angeles
A. Dear Barry,
Right on. There is a laps of several years between poor fitness, obesity, and diabetes. The current issue of the journal Diabetes Care contains an article generated by the Lewin Consulting group on the national costs of diabetes. Their figure, admittedly underestimated, is $184 billion, which approximates on tenth of the total health-care dollars.
Per person diabetes costs three times as much as non-diabetes, and with the CDC predicting that one in three of today's kids are destined to become diabetics, I share your alarm.
Maybe we are going to have to stop fighting wars so that we can afford our health care.