Going to the gym doesn’t just require more of a physical effort than staying on the couch. According to a new Canadian-led study, even thinking about exercising taxes the human brain.
Matthieu Boisgontier from the University of British Columbia led a team of researchers seeking an explanation for the “exercise paradox” – the idea that people are becoming more sedentary despite decades of education about the benefits of physical activity.
“A lot of money has been invested in being more physically active. People understand that it’s healthier, but the brain is actually preventing this healthier behaviour,” Boisgontier told CTV News Channel.
Boisgontier and his team believed the answer to that conundrum might lie in the brain. They say their work proves them right.
The researchers reached their conclusions by putting people in front of computers and asking them to control on-screen avatars. The people were shown a series of images displaying scenes of physical activity or inactivity, and were told to move their avatars toward the activity images and away from the inactivity images as quickly as possible.
The subjects were also hooked up to electrodes to monitor their brain activity. The researchers found that moving the avatar away from scenes of inactivity exerted the subjects’ brains more than moving it toward scenes of activity, suggesting people have a natural inclination toward sedentary behaviours.
“We still have this inside our brain, but we need to fight it to be more physically active and more healthy,” Boisgontier said.
According to Boisgontier, humans’ tendency away from unnecessary exertion likely evolved because it lets individuals conserve energy and put it toward more important uses such as finding food, shelter and sexual partners.
The research was published in the journal Neuropsychologia. Future research could look at whether brains can be retrained to work around the automatic inclination toward inactivity.
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