Stolen Stories: A Literary Con Man Climbs To Success In 'Ladder To The Sky'

Take Meg Wolitzer‘s novel (now also a film) called The Wife, about a brazen case of literary ghostwriting, and cross it with Patricia Highsmith’s classic Ripley stories, about a suave psychopath, and you’ve got something of the crooked charisma of John Boyne’s new novel, A Ladder to the Sky.

What a tonic this book is for anyone who feels the world is too much with us these days! Maliciously witty, erudite and ingeniously constructed A Ladder to the Sky explores the cold outer limits of ambition.

It also raises a question about intellectual property rights: Namely, who do stories belong to? The people who live them and sometimes write them, or the people who need them the most? The answer here isn’t as straightforward as you’d think.

Boyne’s anti-hero is named Maurice Swift. When we first spot him in 1988 across a crowded dining room, Maurice is a gorgeous young man in his early 20s, working as a waiter in a West Berlin hotel. He’s graced with full lips and a mop of dark hair and he exudes “the sweet and intoxicating scent of boyish perspiration.”

That besotted description comes courtesy of our narrator, a much older gay writer named Erich Ackermann, who’s arrived in Berlin from England to give a reading of his prize-winning novel Dread.

Erich is lonely and he invites Maurice to have a drink with him. They talk about books because — surprise, surprise — Maurice wants nothing more than to be a successful writer himself. There’s one hitch, though. Maurice writes beautifully, he has a gift for language, but as he tells Erich:

I’m not very good at thinking up plots. … I feel like all the stories in the universe have already been told. … Sometimes I think I would be better as a musician. The type who writes the words but lets someone else come up with the melody.

Erich takes pity on this aspiring young writer and hires him to be his assistant. In return, Maurice, who’s a literary vampire, encourages Erich to unburden himself and talk about an appalling incident from his own youth in which he aided Nazis in World War II Germany.

Maurice promptly appropriates the story for the plot of his debut novel, which becomes a bestseller. In interviews, Maurice announces that his character is based on Erich Ackermann who, in turn, is fired from his post as a university professor and whose books are swept off the shelves of bookstores across the world.

As critics and scholars self-righteously debate whether an author’s works can ever be separated from his life, Erich descends into disgraced obscurity and Maurice blithely bounces off to suck plot ideas out of his next victim.

Part of Boyne’s own brilliance as a storyteller is that, up until the very last chapter when we readers finally enter into Maurice’s mind, we hear, instead, from a succession of narrators fated to become Maurice’s prey. That approach only intensifies Maurice’s enigmatic allure.

And, in his own audacious act of literary appropriation, Boyne sets a chapter in Italy where Maurice visits and tries to manipulate none other than Gore Vidal — the legendary silver-tongued writer and public intellectual. It’s a rollicking, wicked section that tackles issues about authorial vanity and one-upmanship.

Boyne himself doesn’t share Maurice’s difficulties with generating plot: A Ladder to the Sky keeps twisting and turning in such slyly unpredictable ways that, honestly, I sometimes laughed out loud at Boyne’s ingenuity.

But even the most resourceful con man ultimately runs up against the limits of age. By the close of this novel, Maurice is no longer beautiful. Here’s a section where he scrutinizes one of his most important body parts:

I glanced down at my hands, which had spent so much of their lives typing away at a keyboard before me. My recollection of them was as smooth collaborators … , but now, the skin was tight and my fingers appeared bony, the nails pockmarked, with large semicircles spreading outward from the cuticles, like slowly exploding planets. I was growing old, it was clear, and not gracefully.

In addition to all the other questions A Ladder to the Sky ruminates on, one of the most intriguing is the power of beauty to dazzle and, in particular, to make those people who possess it seem smarter and more talented than they may be. After reading A Ladder to the Sky, you may never look at an author’s book jacket photo the same way again.

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Canada Has Heard Recordings Of Khashoggi's Death, Trudeau Confirms

Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau says his intelligence services have reviewed an audio recording of the death of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Istanbul. He also thanked Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan for his “strength” in response to the case.

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Canada’s intelligence agency has heard audio recordings that Turkey says are a crucial part of its evidence that Saudi operatives murdered journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said on Monday — the first time a leader of a Western nation has acknowledged receiving the recordings.

“Canada has been fully briefed up on what Turkey had to share,” Trudeau said during a news conference at the Canadian Embassy in Paris.

When asked to clarify that he was saying Canadian agents had heard the recordings, Trudeau replied, “Yes.” He added that he had not heard them himself.

Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan said on Saturday that his country had shared the audio recordings with a number of countries, including the U.S., France, Germany and Saudi Arabia. But French Foreign Minister Jean-Yves Le Drian said Erdogan was playing “a political game” and that he wasn’t aware of France receiving the recordings — prompting an angry response from Turkish officials who disputed Le Drian’s account and cited Trudeau’s acknowledgement.

As more facts have emerged about the case, it has also sparked questions about whether Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman might have ordered or approved the killing of Khashoggi.

Khashoggi had criticized Saudi Arabia for not allowing open discussion and dissent; just before he died, he also discounted claims that the crown prince could be a force for reform. Khashoggi said the prince’s critics in Saudi Arabia would not dare to speak out against him, for fear of reprisals.

The recordings have been seen as a key piece of proof of what really happened to Khashoggi after he entered Saudi Arabia’s consulate in Istanbul on Oct. 2. International skepticism has been cast upon the fluctuating Saudi explanations for his disappearance — which range from an insistence that the Washington Post columnist had left its consulate alive to a claim that he died in a fight.

In late October, Erdogan presented a timeline of the events around the journalist’s death, saying Khashoggi had been “brutally murdered” in an operation that involved a team of up to 18 Saudis. At that time, President Trump said, “The cover-up was the worst in the history of cover-ups.”

On Monday, Trudeau said he has spoken to Erdogan about the situation, and that he had thanked Erdogan for his “strength” in responding to Khashoggi’s death.

Just before Erdogan delivered his lengthy public remarks about the killing last month, U.S. CIA Director Gina Haspel flew to Ankara to inspect Turkey’s evidence surrounding the killing. Later, the CIA did not comment on whether Haspel had heard the recordings, despite reports by Reuters and other news outlets saying she had.

On Sunday, Turkish investigative journalist Nazif Karaman told Al Jazeera that the audio recordings indicate that Khashoggi’s killing took around seven minutes — and that Khashoggi’s last words were, “I’m suffocating … Take this bag off my head, I’m claustrophobic.”

Khashoggi’s body has not been found; Karaman and others with knowledge of Turkey’s audio recordings say they believe his corpse was dismembered at the consulate.

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Sourdough Hands: How Bakers And Bread Are A Microbial Match

“Our data suggests that something about baking seems to be changing the hands of the people who do the baking,” says ecologist Rob Dunn.

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If you bake a lot of sourdough bread, your hands might look like your loaves. Bacterially speaking, that is. The microbes found on bakers’ hands mirror the microbes within their starters — the bubbly mix of yeast, bacteria and flour that’s the soul of every loaf.

Author and scientist Rob Dunn helped conduct an experiment to explore the microbial interaction between bakers and sourdough bread.

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That’s the surprising finding from a sourdough bake-off experiment, coordinated by ecologists Rob Dunn and Anne Madden. Fifteen sourdough experts from around the world arrived at a Belgian baking center with brand-new homemade starters, fed from the exact same ingredients sent from Dunn’s lab. But before the bakers could get their hands into the dough, they held them out to Madden for bacterial swabbing.

Partnered with analysis of the starter’s microbial ecosystem, Dunn and his collaborators were able to draw a close connection between bread, bakers and their bacterial species.

“It’s a reminder that we have a really intimate relationship with our food,” says Dunn. “Not only do we impact the species in our food, but the species in our food impacts the species on or in our bodies.”

In his new book, Never Home Alone, released Nov. 6, Dunn explores the species behind what he calls the “wild life” of our homes. “There’s a lot more life in our houses than we think,” he explains. “To the extent that we’ve thought about it, we’ve tried to kill it.”

It’s no surprise, then, that Dunn’s survey of indoor species (including insects) lands him in the bakery with sourdough, which is brought alive by microbes. The experiment delves into how cooking with fermented foods might affect the microbes of the people who make them. In the book, Dunn describes how he formed the hypothesis that our bodies and environments influence the taste of our food.

The following interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Where did the idea that hands and home affect the flavor of food come from?

I had a couple of conversations that led me toward this concept of son-mat, the Korean word for “hand flavor,” that there was something that the hands offered to the food. If I were a poet, that would just be “love” and “sentiment.” But I’m an ecologist. So the only thing I could think about in the context of that word was that there were actually species moving from people’s hands into the food. And if there were species moving from hand, there must also be species moving from homes. The boundary between the body and the home is super fluid.

How did you come up with an experiment to test that idea?

We teamed up with the Puratos Center for Bread Flavour, which is a super cool bread museum, research and conference center in the tiny German-speaking part of eastern Belgium. The ideal experiment would have people from different regions, both men and women, from different styles of bakeries. That would maximize the kinds of ways that their bodies and bakeries might influence what they were contributing. That’s where Puratos was super helpful, because they were able to recommend bakers around the world who could come together at this bread center to do the experiment. The hope was to get them all to make the same starter except for the microbes, then bring them together, and all make the same bread. So we could test the starter, we could test their hands, and we could test the consequences for the bread itself.

What were the results?

The starters were super different, and those differences were in part associated with who made them, and where they made them. There was an essence of the baker in the starter the baker made, and that was conveyed in the bread. That was one result.

The other one, which our design wasn’t perfect for, but was the crazier one to me, was that we’d swab the hands of the bakers to figure out what was on their hands, and it was the same thing that was in the starter. We hadn’t thought to wonder if the baker’s hands themselves would be unusual. But lo and behold, the baker’s hands looked like sourdough. So yes, the bakers did influence their starters, but the other way around was true too. The life of baking seems to influence the bakers.

Can you describe what you mean by “Their hands looked like sourdough”?

The most common sourdough starters are lactobacillus bacteria and their relatives. And the most common yeasts are saccharomyces yeasts and their relatives. If we look at the average human hand, those bacteria and those yeasts are really quite rare — three percent maximum of fungi on the hands. On the bakers, they were in some cases up to 60 percent of the bacteria in particular on the hands. Which is to say that the hands looked more like sourdough in terms of the microbes they had more than they looked like the hands of the plumber or the professor.

So, based on their bacteria, if you were to try to pick sourdough hands out of a lineup, those hands might look like the starter itself?

Yeah, they would probably look like a funky starter.

People have such a personal connection to their starters. Would you say that that’s backed up by the science at this point?

Yes. Clearly, our data suggests that something about baking seems to be changing the hands of the people who do the baking. To me, it suggests that your hands are in a way taking a measurement of your life. Right? And so if it’s a life spent with your sourdough starter, if it’s a life spent in food, they’re going to record a different story than if it’s a life just swiping left and right on your phone.

How much bread do you have to bake to have sourdough hands?

That’s a good question, and I don’t know the answer. But if I were to speculate, I bet it doesn’t take a lot of baking to change your hands a little bit. But if you really want those total baker hands, I think that’s touching bread as much as you touch people.

Lindsay Patterson is the producer and co-host of Tumble, a science podcast for kids. She lives in Barcelona with her husband and son. Follow her on Twitter: @tumblecast

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Farm Supervisor Faces Charges Over Australia's Needles-In-Strawberries Scare

A strawberry is shown on a fork at a restaurant in Sydney in September. The tainting of supermarket strawberries with sewing needles prompted a scare across Australia; now, a farm supervisor is facing charges.

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A 50-year-old farm supervisor has been accused of intentionally planting needles in Australian strawberries, and could spend up to 10 years in prison if convicted.

In September, the repeated discovery of needles stuck inside grocery store strawberries prompted widespread alarm, caused farmers to dump massive quantities and triggered a nationwide investigation.

A spokeswoman for the Queensland Strawberry Growers Association told Australia’s ABC broadcaster that police put more than 100 officers on the case. Intelligence agencies also assisted in the “complex investigation,” local police say.

Now, a woman named My Ut Trinh has been charged with seven counts of contaminating goods. Because the alleged crime was “aggravated,” authorities say, the offense carries a possible 10-year prison term instead of the typical maximum of three years.

The BBC reports that in total, 186 strawberries with needles were found across the country, including 15 hoaxes; it’s not yet clear how many the accused woman was responsible for.

One man was hospitalized after swallowing half of a needle. At least two children encountered needles in strawberries but were unharmed.

My Ut Trinh is being held without bail.

“Ms Trinh worked as a supervisor at the Berry Licious farm, but her lawyer said she did not work picking strawberries or in the packing sheds,” ABC reports. “The court heard the woman was allegedly acting out of spite and that it was an act of sabotage.”

But Trinh’s defense attorney argued that the prosecution had not described a specific motive for the contamination.

The Queensland Strawberry Growers Association has welcomed the arrest, and called for the alleged strawberry saboteur to be “brought to account to the full extent of the law.”

But the group also noted that many reports of needles appear to have been copycats or false reports, and said that people making false claims to seek attention or financial reward should also face criminal charges.

The needle crisis was financially damaging to the country’s strawberry farmers. The industry urged consumers to ensure their safety by cutting up strawberries before eating them, rather than avoid buying them altogether.

As ABC notes, some strawberry supporters and farmer fans started a social media campaign — #SmashAStrawb — to share recipes calling for sliced or smushed strawberries, which could be safely consumed.

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As Only She Can, Sade's 'The Big Unknown' Bottles A Resolute Sadness

Sade’s “The Big Unknown” will appear on Widows — the movie and soundtrack come out Nov. 16.

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We are all Viola Davis, staring out of a window, crying and listening to Sade.

“The Big Unknown” will feature in the end credits to Widows, the Steve McQueen-directed thriller about four women who pay a criminal debt left behind by their dead husbands. The lyric video pairs the aching, slow-burning ballad with scenes from the film, as its characters cope and make plans to, well, kick some ass. But as Sade does, “The Big Unknown” bottles a sadness that is both overwhelming and resolute, determined to make the world right, but understands that grief forever breaks our bodies and souls.


“I’m just trying to hold on / I’m falling in the dark below / I feel I’m falling in the big unknown,” Sade sings. “There’s no fire and flame on this cold, cold plane / No way to measure my pain.”

This is the second song that Sade has contributed to a soundtrack in 2018 (the first being “Flower of the Universe” for Ava DuVernay’s A Wrinkle in Time).

“It was an honor to work with such a legend,” Steve McQueen says. “Sade is an incomparable talent and incredible artist who so rarely releases new material, but luckily the original series of Widows had deeply resonated with her.”

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Faces Of NPR: Adelina Lancianese


Clare Schneider/NPR

Faces Of NPR is a weekly feature that showcases the people behind NPR, from the voices you hear every day on the radio to the ones who work outside of the recording studio. You’ll find out about what they do and what they’re inspired by on the daily. This week’s post features Adelina Lancianese, a Production Assistant for NPR’s Story Lab.

The Basics:

Name: Adelina “Addie” Lancianese

Twitter Handle: @AdLancianese

Job Title: Production Assistant, Story Lab

Where You’re From: Mount Hope, West Virginia

An Inside Look:

You’re a Production Assistant for Story Lab here at NPR. What does that mean? What does your day-to-day look like?

I help Story Lab Senior Producer Michael May cook up new podcasts and radio series. My day-to-day might mean a reporting trip to New York, structuring podcast pilot episodes, or organizing a color-coded binder of legal documents.

Basically, my job is all my favorite parts of journalism: writing, researching, thinking outside the box, and helping others achieve their goals.

How did you get started here? What advice do you have for someone who wants a job like yours?

I started at NPR as a 2017-18 Kroc Fellow, which introduced me to public media. My fellowship year was jam-packed with new experiences: cutting thoughtful two-ways for Weekend Edition, reporting with the hard-working Yinzers at WESA in Pittsburgh, and delving into some really meaningful stories at the National Desk. I’m often asked by Kroc applicants about what it takes to get the job. There’s no secret formula, but there are a few key ingredients: curiosity, open-mindedness, and self-confidence.

Clare Schneider/NPR

What are some projects you’re most proud of that you’ve worked on? What is the most rewarding part of your job?

My dad was a coal miner for nearly 40 years, and my heart belongs to Appalachia. So when I had the opportunity to help Howard Berkes on his upcoming investigation into black lung disease, it felt like a homecoming. Not only did I get to hear the voices of dozens of coal miners, but I had the privilege of helping amplify them.

The most rewarding part of my job, as a Kroc Fellow and now as a production assistant, is being trusted with stories of people from all walks of life. I’m working on a project right now that has deeply challenged my preconceptions, and I’m grateful my job helps our audiences experience that, too.

What’s on your desk?

  • Framed photos of my adorable rescue dog Rainy
  • My Mothman coffee mug (every West Virginian’s favorite cryptozoological neighbor)
  • A wool shawl (did you know that office temperatures are set according to the average, middle-aged man’s body size?)
  • Press passes from some reporting adventures (The Caps victory parade, Congress, a service dog convention)
  • A copy of Ramp Hollow: The Ordeal of Appalachia by Steven Stoll that investigative reporter Joe Shapiro thought I might enjoy
  • Thank-you & holiday cards from people whose kindness I want to remember
  • My massive M&M jar (Stop on by for a scoopful and say hi!)

Clare Schneider/NPR

Favorite podcast?

I listen to Up First every morning while I’m getting ready for work, and I’ve even timed my routine to be in sync with it!

I’m a big fan of true crime podcasts on my commute: Serial, S-Town, She Says from WFAE.

But when I need a hardy laugh? 2 Dope Queens or My Dad Wrote A…. (I’ll let you finish that sentence.)

Favorite Tiny Desk?

I lived a childhood dream when I met Paramore after they performed a few tracks from “After Laughter” — an album that is an ode to young adulthood.I also really enjoyed Fragile Rock, the emo puppet band that turned NPR Music into a moshing muppet fest. (PS: This is my formal request for a Jon Bellion Tiny Desk.)

Favorite places in Washington D.C.?

I’d recommend the Mansion on O Street. It’s like an I Spy book meets a Nancy Drew novel: quirky, gorgeous, and a true hidden gem in D.C.

Clare Schneider/NPR

First thing you do when you get to the office?

I grab something to drink. It’s a toss-up between coffee, hot chocolate, and a green Soundbites smoothie. (Mom — if you’re reading this — I promise I’m drinking enough water.)

What are you inspired by right now?

I’m rereading L.M. Montgomery’s Anne of Green Gables series. Anne Shirley is my kindred spirit. Some other inspirations: Dolly Parton, Jeopardy! contestants, Mister Rogers, my crafty mother, Oxford American magazine, Christine McConnell, @dog_rates on Twitter, fiddle music, Simone Giertz, flea market finds, and this recent NPR story about the legacy of Harry Potter.

What do you love about public radio?

There’s nothing quite like being transported to Papua New Guinea by Durrie Bouscaren while I’m in my car, or to experience sub-zero New York temperatures with Brian Mann while I’m cozy under my blankets.

When I listen to NPR programming, my colleagues (who are absolute masters of sound) take me on a sensory experience that print and TV just can’t. I wasn’t a backseat baby, so discovering NPR in my young adulthood opened up a whole new world of storytelling — one where honesty and artistry aren’t mutually exclusive.

Clare Schneider/NPR

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New Physical Activity Guidelines Urge Americans: Move More, Sit Less

Getting physical activity every day can help maintain health throughout your life.

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You’ve likely heard the idea that sitting is the new smoking.

Compared to 1960, workers in the U.S. burn about 140 fewer calories, on average, per day, due to our sedentary office jobs. And, while it’s true that sitting for prolonged periods is bad for your health, the good news is that we can offset the the damages by adding more physical activity to our days.

The federal government has just updated recommendations for physical activity for the first time in 10 years, essentially to get that message across. Based on a review of several years of new research, the key takeaway of the new guidelines, released Monday, is, get moving, America!

“The new guidelines demonstrate that, based on the best science, everyone can dramatically improve their health just by moving – anytime, anywhere, and by any means that gets you active,” said Adm. Brett Giroir, Assistant Secretary of Health at the Department of Health and Human Services, in a release.

With a few exceptions, the advice in the new guidelines is not so different from what we were told in the 2008 guidelines. But, here’s the trouble: only about 20 percent of Americans meet them. This lack of physical activity is linked to $117 billion in annual health care costs, according to a report published Monday in in the Journal of the American Medical Association that lays out the new guidelines.

The new guidelines marshal a growing body of evidence that documents immediate benefits of exercise such as reduced anxiety, improved sleep and improved blood sugar control, and long-term benefits (of regular physical activity), including cognitive benefits, and significantly lower risks of heart disease and certain cancers.

So, how much physical activity do we need? On this point, the new guidelines haven’t changed: Adults need a minimum of 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity physical activity.

One way to think about this: aim for at least 22 minutes of movement a day. You don’t necessarily need to go to the gym or take up jogging. Pick any activity that gets your heart rate up, including walking. In addition, the guidelines call for adults to do muscle-strengthening activity on two or more days a week.

What has changed this time around is an emphasis — for people who are sedentary — to increase movement in their lives even in very short increments.

The old message was you needed at least 10-minute bouts of aerobic activity for it to count towards the goal of 150 minutes a week. But, no longer. The new guidelines conclude that all movement that helps you stay physically activity is important.


  • Every day: active play for preschoolers throughout the day
  • Every day: 60 minutes of aerobic physical activity for children
  • 3 days/week: muscle-strengthening, and bone-strengthening (i.e. jump roping or running) activities for children


  • Every day: move more, sit less. Remember, something is better than nothing.
  • Every week: at least 150 to 300 minutes of moderate to vigorous aerobic activity, throughout the week
  • 2+ days/week: muscle-strengthening activities that use all major muscle groups

Older Adults

  • Follow the guidelines for adults
  • Each week: balance training, as well as aerobic and muscle-strengthening activities
  • Each week: If you can’t complete 150 minutes of aerobic activity due to chronic conditions, do as much as your abilities allow.
  • If you have chronic conditions, learn how those affect your ability to do physical activity safely.

“Everything counts,” says Loretta DiPietro, an epidemiologist at George Washington University who helped write the review of the science on physical activity, which the new guidelines are based on.

So, if you take the stairs instead of the elevator, and it takes you three minutes to climb, you can count that towards your daily goal. Since lack of time a major obstacle to fitting in exercise, the new message is to aim to engineer more movement into your day.

Could you bike or walk more as part of your daily commute? Can you take mini-breaks during the work-day or school-day to walk around the block? Things like this “can accumulate over the course of the day,” says DiPietro. This may help people make a mind shift towards becoming more active.

“Everything adds up and contributes to reduced risk for diseases and day-to-day feeling better,” says Kathleen Janz, of the University of Iowa, who also served on the committee reviewing the science of physical activity.

Other changes in the guidelines include messages to older Americans and to the very youngest. The guidelines nudge older Americans to get on board — or stay on board — with a physically active lifestyle, including balance training to help prevent falls.

“What we were amazed with is the amount of new research — really strong evidence — that supports the role of physical activity in preventing and reducing the progression of disease,” says Janz.

Physically-active lifestyles help reduce the risk of high blood pressure, type 2 diabetes, and cancers (including bladder, breast, colon, endometrium, esophagus, kidney, lung and stomach). In addition, physical activity can reduce the risk of dementia including Alzheimer’s disease.

For the first time, the guidelines make recommendations for young children aged 3 to 5 years old, noting that “preschool-aged children should be physically active throughout the day to enhance growth and development.”

And, there are specific recommendations for older kids and adolescents: Children aged 6 through 17 years should do 60 minutes or more of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity daily.

This recommendation hasn’t changed since 2008, but what is new is what’s known about the range of benefits for this age group. Over the last 10 years, scientists have documented much more about the cognitive benefits. “A physically-active lifestyle leads to a healthier brain during youth,” says Charles Hillman, who directs the Center for Cognitive and Brain Health at Northeastern University.

Hillman points to a few specific studies that show improved performance of academic tests following exercise. “What we find is that a single bout of exercise has a beneficial effect on brain function,” Hillman says.

There are studies pointing to link between exercise and brain benefits in adults, too. It’s one factor that could motivate more people to become more active.

Kathleen Janz says you don’t have to wait around for the benefits of exercise. While it’s true that exercising today may help reduce the risk of heart disease decades from now, there are also immediate benefits.

“Every time you’re active, you feel better, think better and sleep better,” says Janz.

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