We all know that exercise is vital to our health.
Why, then, is it so difficult to avoid a sedentary lifestyle? The frenzied pace and work-centered culture of modern life certainly play a role—it’s difficult to prioritize exercise with so many other pressing societal obligations.
But scientists believe the story doesn’t end there. A new study suggests that our tendency toward inactivity is an innately wired part of our brain chemistry.
The researchers behind the study certainly weren’t trying to prove that we’re lazy. They simply wanted to understand why, despite the sincere desire to remain active and fit, so many of us live a predominantly sedentary lifestyle. They hope that an understanding of our neurology can better equip us to overcome ingrained inclinations.
A systematic review by this research team provided “behavioral and neural evidence” that the average person genuinely wants to remain physically active. Our “automatic behaviors” suggest that we instinctively consider physical activity a reward, and even that our attention is more easily captured by the idea of exercise than by the idea of being sedentary. For example, the researchers found that people reflexively direct their attention toward images of physical activity and away from images of sitting and inactivity.
When the researchers found that hardly any of the review’s participants were able to follow through with their exercise goals, though, they devised the more recent study to determine the neurological underpinnings that might be inhibiting progress.
They suspected that some involuntary, biological mechanism might be hampering progress—and they found plenty of data to support their hypothesis.
How (and why) the brain thwarts our intentions to exercise
Here’s how researchers designed their experimental setup. They recruited healthy, young men and women, all of whom expressed a desire to exercise and a limited ability to act on their intentions. These participants used avatars to interact with a complex computer simulation, which presented them with stick figures engaged in various physical activities and sedentary behaviors. The participants were told to navigate their avatar toward “active” stick-figures and away from “sedentary” stick-figures, and then vice versa.
This testing method implements what are known as “approach-avoidance” tasks. By noting the response times for each task, the researchers were able to gain insight into participants’ conscious feelings and inclinations. And by simultaneously recording participants’ brain activity with a multi-electrode fitted cap, the researchers could determine whether the brain’s biological, reflexive inclinations were in alignment with the person’s conscious feelings.
Almost without exception, the study participants preferred to navigate toward the active stick-figures (i.e. they performed the task more quickly). Just as researchers suspected, though, the brain had a contrary inclination—electrical brain activity revealed that giving attention to the active stick-figures actually took more energy and resources than giving attention to the sedentary ones. This conflict between conscious and unconscious inclinations was most pronounced in areas of the brain that govern inhibition, in which the researchers observed far greater electrical stimulation (and thus a greater amount of energy expended) when participants moved toward active stick-figures.
Experts have noted that this data makes evolutionary sense. In the early days of our species, food was a precious commodity, and less physical exertion translated to fewer necessary calories. But needless to say, this instinctive urge to conserve energy is a dated one, particularly for those of us fortunate enough to have access to all the food we need.
Fight the urge to avoid exercise (it’s worth it)
It’s a good thing we’re consciously attracted to overcoming our evolutionary inclination toward inactivity—because a sedentary lifestyle can be detrimental to our health.
As we covered in previous articles, sitting is the new smoking. It dramatically hampers metabolism, raises cholesterol, promotes insulin resistance, raises your risk of cancer, and is terrible for your back.
Inactivity is also famously associated with cardiovascular issues—and the problem has to do with far more than just aerobic fitness. One fascinating study revealed that a sedentary lifestyle may negatively impact the differentiation of neural stem cells, which can lead not only to heart failure, but also neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s disease, multiple sclerosis, and spinal muscular atrophy.
Here’s the good news: because we are consciously attracted to exercise, it’s fairly easy to create a virtuous cycle of frequent physical activity.
Overcoming the initial disinclination to be active is the hardest part, but people who stick to an exercise routine for just a couple of months find that they’re increasingly drawn to continuing it—the electrical impulses impelling us toward inactivity are overshadowed by endorphins, hormone cascades, and the general feeling of well-being that comes with getting in great shape.
There’s never a bad time to establish an exercise routine, so find an activity that you enjoy and get started!