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Born lazy: How our brain keeps us on the couch

The brain makes us work hard to get off our backsides.

The brain makes us work hard to get off our backsides. Photo: AAP

Does it feel like you have a voice in your head that talks you out of going to the gym or for a walk? A new study has found that this is a vexing reality: your brain makes you naturally lazy.

And this is the case no matter how motivated you are to get moving. Endless health reports have told us that sitting down for a too sedentary lifestyle – leads to a heart attack, a damaged brain, bowel cancer, diabetes and good old death.

And still we submit to sloth.

British Columbia researchers call this problem the “exercise paradox” – and they conducted a series of experiments to find out what was happening.

The brain subverts your good intentions

Their findings, to be published October in the journal Neuropsychologia, suggest that our brains may simply be wired to prefer lying on the couch – and to overcome this laziness requires drawing on additional brain resources.

In other words, you have to make your brain work harder to overcome its default setting.

Test subjects were asked to move an avatar toward the physically active stick people and sway from the lazy ones. Image: UBC

For the study, a group of young-adult test subjects were sat in front of a computer and given control of an on-screen avatar.

The researchers then flashed small images, one a time, that depicted either physical activity or physical inactivity. The images were stick figures of people doing things like cycling, swimming, climbing stairs or kicking a ball – or lying on the couch, in a hammock, sitting with their feet up in front of the TV or sitting at a table.

The test subjects 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.

Still cavemen at heart

Meanwhile, electrodes were recording what was happening in their brains.

Participants were generally faster at moving toward active pictures and away from lazy pictures, but brain-activity readouts (electroencephalograms) showed 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,” said Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in University of British Columbia’s brain behaviour lab at the department of physical therapy, and senior author of the study.

“These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviours,” said Dr Boisgontier, whose remarks were taken from online materials prepared by the university.

The brain’s tendency toward laziness is a hangover from our hunter-gatherer days and mimics the behaviour of other predatory animals.

“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 Dr Boisgontier.

“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.”

The problem is particularly evident in the comfortable west. A World Health Organisation study published this month found that more than 1.4 billion earthling adults are essentially killing themselves slowly by not getting enough exercise.

Despite all the money spent on public education, the study found that global activity levels are virtually unchanged over nearly two decades.

The WHO study tracked activity levels of 1.9 million people in 168 countries across the world during 2016. Australia ranked 97 for healthy activity: a third of our adults have lost the argument with their primitive brains and surrendered to couch life.

The WHO recommends each adult do at least 150 minutes “moderate-intensity” exercise (brisk walking, swimming or gentle cycling) each week, or 75 minutes “vigorous-intensity” activity (running or team sports).

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