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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.[1] 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.[2]

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.[3]

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!


References

[1] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29556981

[2] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/30056055

[3] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00336/full

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Even for people in their 70s, exercise can lower risk of cardiovascular disease!

 

It is very important to remain physically active as we age. Everyone knows that an active lifestyle is decidedly healthier than a sedentary one. Any credible doctor will advocate proper exercise, particularly for the sake of safeguarding cardiovascular health.

Despite this universal agreement about the virtue of exercise, researchers are still endeavoring to understand how and why an active lifestyle is so critical for overall well-being and longevity, and specifically why the heart depends so heavily upon it. Unsurprisingly, granular study data has confirmed that a sedentary lifestyle can be disastrous for your heart (as well as nearly every other aspect of your health.

Since heart disease is the leading cause of death in the United States, we’d do well to heed our doctors’ exercise recommendations, and to dig deeper into what researchers have uncovered.

Use it or lose it

We all know that avoiding exercise is not in our best interest.

In past articles, we’ve talked about the strong connection between exercise and brain health, how exercise dramatically reduces the risk of stroke, how frequent exercise aids detoxification of heavy metals, radioactive materials, and other toxins, how exercise helps combat depression by increasing levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), and how sitting for an extended period of time just might be as unhealthy as smoking.

Living in our work-obsessed society can make it incredibly difficult to prioritize exercise. When faced with the frightening risks of a sedentary lifestyle, though, taking action becomes a bit easier. If you’re in need of this kind of inspiration, look no further than the cardiovascular risks associated with avoiding exercise.

A study published in Frontiers in Neuroscience details a frightening cascade of serious health issues that can ensue when mice are prevented from using their hind legs for a mere 28 days[1]—and their findings are helping us understand why heart failure (and other cardiovascular issues) seem to be so closely associated with a sedentary lifestyle.

The researched reported that, when the mice were deprived of leg exercise for 28 days, they experienced a 70% decrease in neural stem cells that would normally differentiate into nerve cells (compared to normal, exercising mice).[2] This is a significant finding even independent of its implications for cardiovascular health, as it demonstrates how lack of exercise can “contribute to the negative manifestations” of brain metabolism dysfunction and neurological diseases such as multiple sclerosis, Parkinson’s, and spinal muscular atrophy.[3]

The researchers discuss how this decreased neurogenesis can cause heart failure. When stem cells levels decrease, the quantity and quality of nerve tissue also atrophies over time. Eventually, even the nerves that move the heart’s muscles will be affected, thus increasing the risk of heart failure (which explains why heart failure is so common in the neurological diseases mentioned above).

Another study added to these findings by noting that low levels of exercise also lead to mitochondrial dysfunction (which in turn leads to the neurological atrophy described above).[4]

We’ve written before about the fundamental importance of your body’s mitochondria—they’re the “powerhouses” of your cells that make energy production and implementation possible. Mitochondrial dysfunction can not only lead to chronic fatigue, but also may signal the development of serious chronic diseases, including heart disease.

Exercise Helps Your Heart

Regular exercise is an important way to lower your risk of heart disease. Exercising for 30 minutes or more on most days can help you lose weight, improve your cholesterol, and even lower your blood pressure by as many as five to seven points.

A sedentary lifestyle, where your job and your leisure activities involve little or no physical activity, doubles your risk of dying from heart disease. This is similar to the increased risk you’d have if you smoked, had high cholesterol, or had high blood pressure.

The Good News

It’s easier than you might think to improve your health with exercise. You don’t have to jog for an hour a day. In fact, some studies have shown greater health benefits from light to moderate exercise simply because people are more likely to stick with it.

Your heart health improves with just 30 minutes of exercise on most days. Two 15-minute segments of exercise or three 10-minute segments still count as 30 minutes. Just make sure the activity is vigorous enough to raise your heart rate. Try the talk/sing test: If you can’t talk while you exercise, you’re working too hard. If you can sing, you need to work harder.

What Happens With Exercise

Just as exercise strengthens other muscles in your body, it helps your heart muscle become more efficient and better able to pump blood throughout your body. This means that the heart pushes out more blood with each beat, allowing it to beat slower and keep your blood pressure under control.

When you exercise regularly, your body’s tissue (including the heart) does a better job of pulling oxygen from your blood. This allows your heart to work better under stress and keeps you from getting winded during high-intensity activities.

Physical activity also allows better blood flow in the small blood vessels around your heart. Clogs in these arteries can lead to heart attacks. There’s also evidence that exercise helps your body make more branches and connections between these blood vessels, so there are other routes for your blood to travel if the usual path is blocked by narrow arteries or fatty deposits.

Exercise also increases your levels of HDL cholesterol, the “good” cholesterol that lowers heart disease risk by flushing the artery-clogging LDL or “bad” cholesterol out of your system.

Along with lowering your risk for heart disease, exercise:

  • Keeps your weight down.
  • Improves your mood.
  • Lowers your risk for some types of cancer.
  • Improves your balance.
  • Reduces your risk of osteoporosis by increasing your bone mass.
  • Gives you more energy.
  • Helps you sleep better.

 


References

[1] https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fnins.2018.00336/full

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23750936

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