Two years ago, Matthieu Boisgontier, then a postdoctoral research fellow at KU Leuven in Belgium, noticed a disturbing trend. Even though copious amounts of money and effort poured into campaigns and research encouraging people to adopt active lifestyles, nothing improved. Global physical activity levels were, and still are, abysmal. More than a quarter of the world’s adult population — about 1.4 billion people aged 18 and older — were “insufficiently active” in 2016, the World Health Organization reported this month.
“I was surprised,” Boisgontier, now a researcher at the University of British Columbia, told The Washington Post. “We have so much money invested in this. Who doesn’t know it’s healthier to be physically active? . . . How could it be that it’s not working with all this information showing us that we need to be active, that it’s good for us and it’s free?”
Teaming up with longtime friend Boris Cheval, a postdoctoral researcher in health and exercise psychology at the University of Geneva, the duo set out to determine why people may have the desire to exercise regularly, but struggle to follow through. It’s the “exercise paradox,” Cheval told The Post.
The problem is people’s brains are conditioned to choose the easy route, whatever calls for the least amount of energy, said Boisgontier, who studies neuroscience.
No matter what you think you want, researchers say your brain wants you to be sedentary to conserve energy. When you start contemplating physical activity, it forces your brain to work harder to counteract the urge, the study found. Even when you’re headed up to the gym to get exercise, for example, your brain may tell you to use the elevator rather than the stairs, Boisgontier said.
The findings were published in October’s edition of Neuropsychologia, a peer-reviewed journal.
This is the first study of its kind to use a brain imaging technique as a way of attempting to understand the paradox, Boisgontier said.
The brain has an “automatic attraction to sedentary behaviors,” Boisgontier said, adding that it probably comes from an evolutionary adaptation favoring energy conservation.
Some people might call it laziness. But “if you look at it from an evolutionary perspective, it’s not being lazy,” he said. “It’s minimizing energy costs. This minimization was useful during evolution because it provided us an advantage for survival.”
But, millions of years later, as society and technology have advanced, the need to minimize energy usage has not only lessened but now poses a problem.
“It’s still there in your brain and you have to fight it,” Boisgontier said.
To document this internal struggle, a group of researchers from different universities led by Boisgontier and Cheval observed the brain function of the study’s 29 participants using an electroencephalogram (EEG), which records electrical activity in the brain. The participants were young adults who were either already physically active or had a strong desire to be.
They were instructed to move their computerized avatars toward images of physical activity and away from images of sedentary behavior and vice versa. While the participants were doing this, electrodes monitored their brain waves.
The participants, all eager to exercise, showed faster reactions when approaching physical activity and avoiding sedentary behavior. This showed their intent to be physically active, researchers wrote in the study.
But as they moved toward the exercise image — for example a stick figure riding a bicycle — the EEG data showed the brain working harder. It was as if an “automatic brake” was activated, Boisgontier said.
A person can have the “best intention” to be active, Cheval said, “but if your system is minimizing your energetic cost, your intention will not be implemented.”
Jude Buckley, a University of Auckland psychologist who was not involved in the study, described the research as “well done” and “wonderfully sophisticated.”
But Buckley said she does not believe the brain’s attraction to saving energy comes from biological evolution. Rather, she said, it may be a product of society’s evolution.
In early times, “high levels of physical activity were a requisite and inherent part of our everyday lives,” Buckley said.
As society and technology have rapidly evolved, however, physical activity has become less of a vital survival skill and more of an unnecessary exertion, she said. Tasks that once required great physical effort no longer do. “Now, we’ve got the instant push of a button,” she said.