Over the course of the years, I’ve read hundreds of thousands of pages filled with words as a hobby. I’ve read some humorous books that have genuinely made me laugh aloud, some books that made me sob as I read about the death of a character, and other times, I’ve closed a book and thought “eh”. But every once in a while, I’ll come across a collection of pages and pause to think “Wow”.
Sometimes just the perfect combination of words will stick with you long after you close the cover. I’ve had so many moments like this that have resulted in me questioning my perception about myself and the world around me, or just enlightening me with knowledge that I believe most people should know. I compiled a list of the best things I have learned from a few of my favorite books of all time.
Spark; The Revolutionary New Science of Exercise and the Brian by John Ratey
This book is all about health and fitness. John Ratey explores the science behind exercise and the impact it has on the human brain in regards to anxiety, depression, aging, learning, stress, addiction, and much more. One of the takeaways from this read is just the mental impact exercise has on the brain in being a mood booster.
Neurotrophins, such as BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor) build and maintain the cell circuitry, as well as activating genes in our body to produce serotonin and proteins that build synapses. In other terms, BDNF “directs the traffic in our brains” and improves the function of neurons, encourages their growth, and strengthens our cells against the natural process of death. This book discusses an experiment where BDNF was sprinkled on neurons in a petri dish and cells automatically sprouted new branches, producing the same structural growth required for learning.
Exercise releases BDNF in significant amounts and changes the hormones in our brain and how we function. In a study done in rats, antidepressants with exercise of any type increased BDNF levels in the brain by 250%. Exercise doesn’t just selectively influence certain hormones like antidepressants, instead they chemically adjust the chemistry of the entire brain to restore normal signaling. The BDNF that is released when we move our body is truly mind-altering and the best way to get a simple spike of serotonin.
Throughout the entire book, Ratey makes several points pertaining to the benefits of exercise on the brain, probably too many to list. This knowledge has stuck with me and I make working out a priority in my day simply to better myself mentally. Understanding the science behind exercise makes people more motivated to do it in the first place. Exercise promotes numerous physical benefits, but the mental benefits outnumber them by a landslide. Whether it is jogging, walking, lifting or cycling, the movement of the body releases a chain reaction of feel-good emotions that are crucial in living a healthier and better life.
The Book of Moods by Lauren Martin
When it comes to self help books, I find that most people gravitate to the two polar opposite ends of the spectrum; they either love them or hate them.
I personally love them and read them all the time, but this is probably one of my favorites.
Lauren Martin describes all of her bad moods ranging from work to family to body image, identifies her triggers, how to cope with them and improve on them, leading her to a more mentally sound lifestyle. Several things changed my perspective in this book and I find myself applying much of Lauren’s advice to my daily life. Some of her most beneficial advice was given to me in the first few pages.
When people say “I’m in a bad mood” they usually are upset, angered, or disappointed about something for a long period of time, affecting their entire day and others around them. It’s like we wake up and might as well put on a shirt that says “I AM ANGRY TODAY” because we bring this bad mood with us wherever we go and make it very obvious. At night, we still find ourselves in this funk and think “I’ll just try again tomorrow” as if the world will change overnight.
Neuroscientists have confirmed that emotional responses last for only about 90 seconds, at most. Neuroanatomist Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor explains that once we are triggered by something, chemicals are released from our brain into our veins and after 90 seconds, this process stops. The chemical component has completely dissipated from our blood and our initial and automatic physiological response to a trigger is over. A mood can then be defined as anything we feel after those 90 seconds. We are choosing to be angry. We no longer have an automatic response sending out these chemicals and inside, decide to keep igniting this thought or emotion over again, carrying it with us for however long it takes for us to snap out of it.
When we are in a bad mood, we think the world is out to get us. We are just waiting for the next bad thing to happen. But honestly, we perceive the world differently when we are in a bad mood and we decide to do this. We are in complete control of our emotions after our body stops producing a chemical reaction to a trigger.
This book has altered the way in which I find myself handling situations. I give myself 90 seconds to feel that emotion while the chemicals are still circulating within me, and then I am faced with a decision to either let it go, or light that emotional response again and let it determine my day. Next time you are in this scenario, I challenge you to use your willpower and choose to let it go.
In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan
I genuinely think I could write an entire separate article on things I have learned from this book alone. If you have any interest in eating the proper foods so your body performs best and what is considered the healthiest foods to eat and why, then I can’t recommend a better read for you. But, if there is one takeaway from this book that has stuck with me for quite some time, it would be about the importance of fat in the American diet. Yes, you read that right.
Paul Rozin, a psychologist at the University of Pennsylvania, wanted to measure how Americans perceive “fattening” foods and why so many people are afraid to consume them. He conducted a study in which he presented Americans with the following scenario: “Assume you are alone on a deserted island for one year and you can have water and one other food. Pick the food that you think would be best for your health.” The volunteers were presented with the following choices: corn, alfalfa sprouts, hot dogs, spinach, spinach, peaches, bananas, and milk chocolate. It was found that the most popular choices were bananas at 42% followed by spinach at 27%, and the least popular choices were hot dogs at 4% and milk chocolate being selected by just 3% of the participants.
It turns out that those who selected the “healthiest” food like bananas and spinach would die on this hypothetical desert island within just weeks, maybe even days. Those who selected hot dogs and milk chocolate are the lucky ones who will live significantly longer.
Many people look at the word “fat” on a nutrition label and automatically assume it is a toxin and extremely unhealthy if consumed. However, the human brain is about 60% and fats make up the structure of our cell membranes. Every single cell in our body is covered in a protective layer of fat and also used to cushion our most vital organs.
Although this study poses the questions of different types of fat and which ones promote the best overall health, it is important to note that fats are absolutely crucial to a healthy diet. While taking in all nutrients in moderation is the most sustainable and calls for the best results in terms of our bodies performing at peak performance, it is important to note that fats should never be feared. In fact, without fats, we would die.
This is all great news the next time you are asked to pick a food you’d hypothetically have to take with you on a deserted island. Next time you are presented with this question, and trust me, you probably will be, don’t be so quick to cancel out some chocolate. And be sure to reach for it every once in a while in your pantry.
Each of these books have taught me something different and impacted me way more than I thought they would have when I first cracked them open. Whether prioritizing fitness into my daily life, processing my emotions with a different approach, or giving into the occasional sweet tooth craving, I find myself thinking about these authors’ wise words more often to live a better life. The lessons and takeaways I have gathered from these three books alone provide so much knowledge and insight and I could not recommend these reads more for anyone eager to learn and enlighten themselves.