Spark, Nudge, and Miracle-Gro for the National Spirit, Brain and Body

Spark, Nudge, and Miracle-Gro for the National Spirit, Brain and Body

By Nell Steelman Whitlock

Serendipitously, I encountered two intriguing books back-to-back last weekend: Spark by Dr. John Ratey and Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I heard interviews with Ratey (People’s Pharmacy) and Thaler (BBC). I have begun to read Spark, and am waitlisted for Nudge at the library. I heard enough, however, in the interviews to get their gist and crystalize an idea that has been bouncing around in my head for a while: abolish drug ads on television the way we abolished cigarette ads and begin to improve the national spirit, brain and body. Especially if we substitute positive public service messages about exercise and nutrition.

Dr. Ratey reports on the great research he and others have been doing in the exercise- brain connection. Bottom line, he says, exercise is “ Miracle –Gro for the brain” in that it actually promotes brain cell growth, especially in the prefrontal cortex. He described the great success a failing school in Naperville, IL had in reversing poor academic performance into outstanding simply by adding a rigorous phys ed program. Also, exercise improves one’s outlook on life after the endorphins kick in. Now we have even more substantial science that proves it can strengthen the mental muscle too. And it may ward off dementia and Alzheimer’s.

Thaler is the “father of behavioral economics”, the study of “ how thinking and emotions affect individual economical decisions and the behaviors of markets.” A nudge is a small thing in the environment that can influence people’s choices towards a certain positive goal. The book advocates that instead of using coercion, government and institutions can apply this principle to influence people to make better decisions that can benefit themselves and society at large and thereby reduce overall costs. For example, a school cafeteria might nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. Another example: Thaler describes how some countries in Europe reduced the cost of clean-up in public men’s urinals by installing fake flies in them to induce better aim. The situation improved something like 90%.

TV land is drowning in ads for drugs for every inch of our bodies, inside and out, head to toe. The composite message is if you don’t suffer from something already, you soon might. So “Ask your doctor if Drug X is right for you. “ That line reminds me of the one at the end of toy and sugary cereal ads, “Ask your mom to buy you Toy X or Sugary Cereal Y”. We’ve been trained from childhood by these toxic messages. No wonder our national health is so plagued with designer ailments and obesity.

Unfortunately, the reality is that Big Pharma rules the networks’ bottom lines, not to mention political campaign donations. It’s hard to remember that it is the PUBLIC airwaves we are talking about here. Sometimes it seems as if it is the TV shows that bring us the drug ads and not the other way round. But it doesn’t mean we can’t do something. It is easy to quit watching because of the miserable content of the shows themselves. We don’t have to infect ourselves with such troubling ads whose power of suggestion is enough to make even the hardiest viewers ill.

We can also start a whisper campaign with “Exercise is Miracle-Gro for the brain. Pass it on.” This week, I have been spreading the word at our YMCA where I often do my best thinking during a vigorous spin or cardio-muscle class. President Obama has asked us for input and suggestions for improvement. Perhaps eliminating drug ads from TV could be one. Who knows, perhaps we can start a grass roots campaign “Exercise is Miracle-Gro for the brain.” that might even reach his ears at the White House!
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(Related: Michelle Obama’s Sesame Street PSA about exercise video at (http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2009/05/07/michelle-obamas-sesame-st_n_198996.html)