Humans Are Hardwired for Laziness

CC BY 2.0. Amüsante Lektüre, 1935 (Fabio Cipolla)

Struggling to get to the gym? New research shows that our brains have to work harder to avoid idleness.

Oh, sloth, you deadly sin, you. Why must you persist in making us feel so guilty for lazing about from time to time?

Here's the thing. We all know we are supposed to be active ... but given the choice between leisure and the gym, well, some of us might not choose the thing we are "supposed" to choose. Study after study proves the health benefits of exercise – shouldn't our survival instinct encourage us to do that which makes us live longer, healthier lives? Alas, the couch often wins.

But if you beat yourself up over mixed feelings about exercise, a University of British Columbia researcher, Matthieu Boisgontier, wants you to know something: "The struggle is real, and it's happening inside your brain."

See? It's not your fault! Your brain has a mind of its own.

Boisgontier and his colleagues were curious about this so-called "exercise paradox," in which we know we should exercise, yet statistics reveal that even so, we are actually becoming less active. And they decided to look for answers in the glorious gray matter. Their findings, published in the journal Neuropsychologia, reveal that our brains may simply be "wired to prefer lying on the couch." Phew.

Here's why, says Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC's brain behavior lab at the department of physical therapy, and senior author of the study:

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

Which actually makes perfect sense. Much in the same way we are hardwired to crave the caloric energy of sugar and fat – thanks to the way-back olden days when those things were in short supply – old instincts die hard. Even though we have more calories available than we know what to do with now, and even though we no longer need to spend a lot of energy running away from saber tooth tigers, our brains haven't exactly caught up with the developments of the modern world.

"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," Boisgontier adds.

For the study, the team measured reactions to animations of physical activity or physical inactivity. While participants reacted faster toward active pictures and away from lazy pictures, brain activity readouts revealed that doing the latter required their brains to work harder.

"We knew from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviours and moving toward active behaviours. 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 says, adding:

These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviours.

So can we rewire or somehow re-train that part of the brain? Alas, there's no quick fix for removing instincts. "Anything that happens automatically is difficult to inhibit, even if you want to, because you don't know that it is happening," Boisgontier says.

"But knowing that it is happening is an important first step," he adds. So what's that mean for anyone who'd prefer the sofa to a spin class? Don't feel badly about it!

And then ... fight that ancient instinct and go get some exercise.