Recent neurological study shows that our brains prefer to be sedentary more than active

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Photo: YouTube screengrab

When you know you need to exercise but laziness is taking over, your reluctance is not just a lack of discipline – it is your brain refusing to exert energy, preferring instead to relax. A recent neurological study has shown that despite our desires to be active, our brains prefer the sedentary state.

The study, which was published on the U.S. National Library of Medicine’s National Centre for Biotechnology Information website, finds that even though we know, theoretically, that exercise is good for our bodies, certain electrical signals within our brains may be encouraging us to being inactive.

The authors of the study hoped that the research, which aimed to examine the brain’s behavioral reactions to both activity and inactivity, would help us understand why we find it so difficult to move. And perhaps we can come up with ways to combat the proverbial question – to exercise or not to exercise?

Psychologists, exercise physiologists, sports scientists and psychologists have long been stumped by the gap between people’s desires and intentions to be physically active and their actual behavior, which, for a lot of people, is the opposite. Some exercise regularly, but the majority do not, despite having the knowledge that it is good for our bodies and necessary for our well-being.

The usual excuses we come up with are not enough time, no access to gyms or facilities or ability.

An international group of neuropsychologists, scientists who study the relationships between brain functions and physical activity, decided to look deeper into how the brain actually feels about activity and inactivity.

In an earlier study, the neuropsychologists surveyed previous exercise research in both attitude and behavior. They reported the findings as such: most people had a real desire to be active. In computer tests, participants would direct their attention away from photos of sedentary behavior like lying down and relaxing but toward photos of physical activity.

The gap, which occurred when there was no follow-through on their original intentions to be active, was the basis for the study.

The neuropsychologists performed the “approach-avoidance task” test on 29 healthy young men and women using electroencephalography, which is an electrophysiological monitoring method to record the electrical activity of the brain.

They were subjected to images representing physical activity, like a figure running or hiking, immediately followed by sedentary images of lying down on the couch or relaxing on the beach, over and over again.

The test was to move their assigned avatars as quickly as they could toward the images of physical activity and away from the sedentary ones, and then vice versa.

This “approach-avoidance task”  results are said to be an accurate indicator of how people feel about what they are seeing on screen – people who moved their avatars toward a certain type of image more quickly than they moved them away from the other type were more consciously drawn to that subject.

Almost all of the participants moved faster toward the active images and were slower to move away from those same active figures.

The consensus was out – there was a conscious preference toward physical activity.

But on the unconscious plane, their brains felt differently. Readouts of electrical brain activity showed that the volunteers had to deploy far more brain resources to move toward physically active images than toward sedentary ones, especially in parts of the brain related to inhibiting actions. These results suggested that additional cortical resources were required to counteract an attraction to sedentary behaviors.

Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher at the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, Canada, co-led the study with Boris Cheval at the University of Geneva in Switzerland.

“To me, these findings would seem to indicate that our brains are innately attracted to being sedentary,” Boisgontier said.

Boisgontier pointed out that the results make sense from an evolutionary standpoint, citing that “conserving energy was necessary” for early humans because food was difficult to get a hold of; therefore, energy needed to be conserved.

So being “lazy”, like lying down or sitting was actually a survival strategy and may have established a “predilection for being sedentary into the architecture of our brains”, he says.

People who are reluctant to exercise “should maybe know that it is not just them,” Boisgontier says. Humans may just have a natural, evolutionary bias toward inactivity.