Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning

Best Selling Author John J. Ratey, MD on “The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain”

March 24, 2021

Welcome back to the Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #116, with best-selling author Dr. John Ratey[i],  who is also an Associate Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Harvard Medical School and an internationally recognized expert in Neuropsychiatry. He has published over 60 peer-reviewed articles, and 11 books published in 17 languages, including the groundbreaking ADHD “Driven to Distraction” series with Dr. Edward (Ned) Hallowell, MD. With the publication of "Spark:The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain", Dr. Ratey has established himself as one of the world's foremost authorities on the brain-fitness connection. His most recent book, “Go Wild”, explores how we can achieve optimal physical and mental health by getting in touch with our caveman roots, and how we can “re-wild” our lives. Dr. Ratey lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and Los Angeles.

Watch the interview on YouTube here. 

On this episode you will learn:

✔︎ Who inspired Dr. Ratey to connect exercise and nutrition to the brain, health and learning?
✔︎ Are some people born runners, meant for exercise and others are not?
✔︎ What happens to the brain after exercise so that it's primed for learning?
✔︎ What is the "disease of civilization" that we all face at some point in our life, before we learn the foods that we should eat and foods we should avoid?
✔︎ What is the lesson we should all understand about carbs/sugar/good fats/insulin and glucose?
✔︎ What is BDNF and why is it so important for brain health?
✔︎ How did one school in Chicago inspire Dr. Ratey to write the book Spark?

Hello and Welcome back! I’m Andrea Samadi, a former educator who has been fascinated with learning the science behind high performance strategies in schools, sports and the workplace, for the past 20 years. If you have been listening to our podcast for some time, you will know that we’ve uncovered that if we want to improve our social and emotional skills, and experience success in our work and personal lives, it all begins with putting our brain health first. We’ve mentioned that daily exercise is one of the top 5 health staples that’s a known brain-health and Alzheimer’s prevention strategy, from our episode #87[ii]  helping us to take our results, productivity and health to these higher levels.

I can’t tell you how excited I am to have come across our guest today, from a referral from someone who was interviewing me a couple of weeks ago.  I always participate in Anna Alba’s “Thriving Parents, Happy Student[iii]” Summit, and this year, she asked me “have you read Dr. Ratey’s book called Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain” and I had not. After I had read just the first few pages of his book, I learned about a school in Chicago, called Naperville[iv], that provides a powerful case study on how aerobic activity can transform not only the body, but also the mind.  I started making connections between the direction our podcast took last year with Dr. David Perlmutter’s Science of Prevention Series from episode #87 where exercise was listed as a top 5 health staple and Alzheimer’s prevention strategy, and now there was a book all about how this one school was using exercise to transform their student’s academic performance.  It took me back to my early days as an educator, and when I used exercise to calm down my students who were labelled behavioral. I was probably onto something back then, without even knowing it.

After I learned about the study and research from Naperville, I asked Greg Wolcott, the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning from episode #64 and one of our first episodes #7, if he had heard of this school and the research and he had.  He let me know that Naperville is about 20 minutes from him and he said “I have based interventions with several schools off the research and found MTSS interventions to have the strongest effect after PE.”

I emailed Dr. Ratey immediately (it was late in the evening) and asked if he would come on the podcast as a guest, and he responded right away and agreed to set up our interview. His book Spark was about cementing the idea that “exercise has a profound impact on cognitive abilities and mental health. It is simply one of the best treatments we have for most psychiatric problems.”[v] I couldn’t have been more excited about speaking with him.

Well, I could, and I was! When I began reading his most recent book, Go Wild: Eat fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being[vi] I almost dropped my phone when I read the last page of his Foreword, when I learned that it was written by Dr. David Perlmutter[vii], whose Alzheimer’s The Science of Prevention Series[viii] inspired our podcast to take a turn towards health and wellness last summer.

Let’s hear from Dr. Ratey!

Welcome Dr. Ratey, thank you for taking the time to speak with me today.

Q1: Before we get to the questions I have for you on your book Spark, and the impact that exercise has on our cognitive abilities, I read in your book Go Wild, that a chance meeting changed the direction of your life. Who did you meet that had such an incredible impact on your life and direction of your work?

Q2: When I think of the title of your book, Go Wild, and began reading it, I began to think of how we have evolved like you mention in chapter 1 as humans 1.0. One of my recent podcast interviews #113 was with Troy Busot[ix], who spoke a lot about endurance running. As a new runner, just starting out, it shocks me that I can run up and down a mountain (over 5 miles) easily but tell me to run 2 miles on the street, and it almost kills me. What would you say?  Does my friend Troy find running long distances easy because he has conditioned himself for it, or are certain people “not made for running?” What does the research say?

Q3: What’s happening at the brain level to help me to think better after I exercise?

Q3B: What does your routine look like, Dr. Ratey, after all of the research you have done?

Q4: Chapter 3 of your book, “Food: Follow the Carbs” with a case study of Mary Beth Stutzman, caught my attention, because her story, although far worse than mine, reminded me of when I was at a standstill with my health (around 2016) and a trip to the ER with stomach pain, led me to a colonoscopy, to look for some answers about exactly what diet should I be eating.  I talk about some of the solutions I found with intermittent fasting and eating a higher fat diet on episode #94 with fitness model and trainer Jason Wittrock[x] but can you explain what is “the disease of civilization” that each of us suffers from in one way or another, and what are some of the solutions that you have seen to work when it comes to diet and nutrition? What should we be eating and what food should we avoid?

Q5: I love how we have someone to blame for what you call “fat-o-phobia” and knowing our cholesterol numbers—you mention Ancel Keys from the University of Minnesota who did some studies that focused on fat and cholesterol, bringing to light that we should avoid fats like the plague. I don’t even know where my fear of butter came from, but it was a huge paradigm shift for me when I made the mental shift away from the fat that eating fats is bad for you. Can you explain why someone can get lean, and feel a surge of energy on a higher fat diet vs one that’s high carb/or sugar that makes someone feel sluggish?  What’s the lesson we should all understand with carbs/sugar/insulin and fat?

Q6: We are getting closer now to bringing in the impacts of exercise on the brain, and its effect on cognition and mental health, but I’ve got one more question that ties what we eat, to how we feel and our mental well-being. In the book Spark, you mention brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF) as “Miracle Gro for the Brain” and its importance for brain health. How does nutrition, or what we choose to eat, have such a profound effect on BDNF and become so important for brain health?

Q7: So now we move to the impact that exercise has on the brain and cognition, or the whole reason why I couldn’t put your book, Spark, down, and I have to say, that when I read you say that a school in Chicago, Naperville, ignited a “spark” in you, to write the book, my attention was caught. I wondered, what did Dr. Ratey learn from this school, and perhaps I was onto something when I used to make my behavioral students run around the building, to bring their focus back on track, in the late 90s, when I was a teacher in the classroom. How does aerobic activity transform the body, and the mind? What in a nutshell did you learn from Naperville’s Zero Hour PE Class?

Q8: Where is your focus now? What are you researching at the moment? What is your vision for change in the future?

Thank you very much Dr. Ratey for the time you have taken to speak with me about your books, and years of research. If people want to learn more about you, what’s the best way? Power Your Brain Through Exercise 


Run, Jump, Learn! How Exercise Can Transform Our Schools: John J Ratey at TEDxManhattanBeach Published on YouTube Nov. 18, 2012

How to Increase BDNF: 10 Ways to Rescue Your Brain (Sept. 17, 2020)

One Small Change Turned These 19,000 Students into the Fittest and Smartest in the US by Alan Freishtat, August 9, 2012

Learning Readiness PE with Paul Zientarski

7 Minute Workout App (J&J Official 7 Minute Workout)  


ADHD 2.0: New Science and Essential Strategies for Thriving with Distraction by John J Ratey, MD and  Edward Hallowell MD (Jan. 12, 2021)

Delivered from Distraction: Getting the Most Out of Life with ADHD by Edward M Hallowell and John Ratey (December 27, 2005)  (

These 2 Habits Can Help You Live Longer, Says Bulletproof Coffee Creator (who plans to live to 180) by Jade Scipioni November 20, 2019

Neuroplasticity—Why You Should Care About Your BDNF by Jurie Rossouw

Michael Pollen’s Food Rules

Remembering P.E. Advocate Phil Lawler by Michael Popke April 2010

Learning Readiness PE with Dr. Paul Zientarski



[ii] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #87 with Andrea Samadi on “The Top 5 Brain Health and Alzheimer’s Prevention Strategies”

[iii] Anna Alba’s Thriving Parents, Happy Student Summit

[iv] Enhancing P.E. in Illinois: Naperville Central High School, September 2013 Case Study

[v] Spark: The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brain by John J. Ratey, MD (January 10, 2008)

[vi] Go Wild: Eat fat, Run Free, Be Social, and Follow Evolution’s Other Rules for Total Health and Well-Being by John J. Ratey, MD and Richard Manning (June 3, 2014)


[viii] Dr. David Perlmutter’s Science of Prevention Series

[ix] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning Podcast EPISODE #113 with Troy Busot on “Launching a Successful Business, Health and Chasing 50”

[x] Neuroscience Meets Social and Emotional Learning EPISODE #94 with Jason Wittrock on “Nutrition, Intermittent Fasting, Nutrition and the Ketogenic Diet”

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