A new Canadian study published in the journal Neuropsychologia suggests that our brains may be hardwired to prefer relaxing on the couch over something active. This is because conserving energy is one of our brain’s top priorities.
Researchers at the University of British Columbia (UBC) investigated the “exercise paradox:” For decades, society has encouraged people to be more physically active, yet statistics show that despite our best intentions, we are actually becoming less active.
“Conserving energy has been essential for humans’ survival, as it allowed us to be more efficient in searching for food and shelter, competing for sexual partners, and avoiding predators,” said senior author Dr. Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s brain behavior lab at the department of physical therapy.
“The failure of public policies to counteract the pandemic of physical inactivity may be due to brain processes that have been developed and reinforced across evolution.”
For the study, young adults took a seat in front of a computer and were given control of an on-screen avatar. Small images flashed on the screen, one at a time, that depicted either physical activity or physical inactivity. The participants had to move the avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity — and then vice versa.
While this was happening, electrodes recorded what was going on in their brains. Participants were generally faster at moving toward active pictures and away from lazy pictures, but brain-activity readouts called electroencephalograms revealed that doing so required their brains to work harder.
“We knew from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviors and moving toward active behaviors. The exciting novelty of our study is that it shows this faster avoidance of physical inactivity comes at a cost — and that is an increased involvement of brain resources,” Boisgontier said. “These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors.”
The question now becomes whether people’s brains can be re-trained.
“Anything that happens automatically is difficult to inhibit, even if you want to, because you don’t know that it is happening. But knowing that it is happening is an important first step,” Boisgontier said.
Boisgontier is also affiliated with the University of Leuven (Belgium) and the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). He led this study with Boris Cheval of the University of Geneva, and their international team of researchers from the University of Oxford (Eda Tipura), the University of Geneva (Nicolas Burra, Jaromil Frossard, Dan Orsholits), and the Université Côte d’Azur (Rémi Radel).
Source: University of British Columbia