Staying motivated to stick with a fitness program, a diet or some other new or healthy habit can be challenging. Despite the best intentions most people have, many still fall short of their goals. This can lead to feelings of defeat or failure, and motivational issues are usually why habits don't stick. New research from the University of British Columbia shows that this loss of motivation isn't a character flaw but rather a matter of brain activity. In other words, it's not your fault for hitting the snooze button a few times and skipping out on a workout.
The researchers at UBC, led by Dr. Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral fellow and senior author of the study, wanted to investigate what is commonly known as the "exercise paradox" where societal trends point to increased exercise and physical activity, but on an individual basis the numbers actually show that most people are less active than they need to be. The UBC research is published in the journal Neuropsychologia, and it makes a case for our brains being "hardwired" for laziness.
Boisgontier explained, "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. 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."
So how did they approach the issue? The study cohort was comprised of young adults who were asked to sit in front of a computer and play a game. The game required them to manipulate an onscreen avatar with specific buttons on the computer keyboard. While they watched, small images appeared on the screen of physical exercise such as working out, or sports alternated with pictures of non-physical activities. The volunteers had to use the keyboard to move their avatar as quickly as possible towards the dynamic images and away from those of non-physical events like a person lying on a couch. The rules were then reversed, with participants needing to rush their avatars towards the low-key images and away from those of active events.
While the game was being played, the study subjects wore caps with electrodes that recorded brain activity. The speed of their movements was also recorded. Overall, people were quicker at getting their avatar close to the more active images and away from the pictures that depicted lazy behaviors. The significant finding, however, was that the brain activity readouts, which are called electroencephalograms, showed that the brain has to work harder to move away from the stationary images.
Boisgontier explained, "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. These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors." Check out the clip below to see more about the work, but if you want to take a nap first, that's OK too.