Why your brain hates exercise

When it comes to exercise, many of us spend more time explaining why we don’t have time than actually lacing up our shoes and heading out the door. According to the Heart and Stroke Foundation of Canada, we only need 150 minutes of moderate exercise each week, yet most of us don’t reach that goal. Why? The reason may be that we’re hard-wired to be lazy, despite our best intentions.

In a new study in the journal Neuropsychologia, University of British Columbia postdoctoral researcher Matthieu Boisgontier, PhD, recruited 29 participants and asked them to look at images of either physical activity or physical inactivity while wearing electrodes that registered their brain activity. The participants were asked to move their on-screen avatars as quickly as they could toward the active pictures and away from the inactive images in one test, and then away from the active photos and toward the inactive ones.

Boisgontier and colleagues found that volunteers moved faster toward physically active pictures than toward the inactive images. The participants, however, also used far more brain activity while moving their avatars away from the inactive images than moving toward them. In other words, the brain worked harder to get away from the sedentary image.

Why do our brains work harder when just considering exercise? The reason may date back to survival instincts. Conserving our physical 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,” Boisgontier explained to Medical News Today. “These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors,” he adds.

The secret to moving more could be as simple as tricking your brain into wanting to work out. In a paper in Current Sports Medicine Reports, author Daniel E. Lieberman, PhD, explains that because our natural inclination is to be lazy, simply telling yourself to exercise more won’t work—you need enticement. The solution is to make your exercise feel more like play; choose something that doesn’t feel like exercise and you’re more likely to do it.

Another strategy is to intentionally build more activity into your everyday routine. Get started by finding out which household items are fitness equipment in disguise.

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