A sophisticated if disconcerting new neurological study suggests that we probably are born to be physically lazy.
It finds that even when people know that exercise is desirable and plan to work out, certain electrical signals within their brains may be nudging them toward being sedentary.
The study’s authors hope, though, that learning how our minds may undermine our exercise intentions could give us renewed motivation to move.
Exercise physiologists, psychologists and practitioners have long been flummoxed by the difference between people’s plans and desires to be physically active and their actual behaviour, which usually involves doing the opposite.
Few of us exercise regularly, even though we know that it is important for health and well-being.
Typically, we blame lack of time, facilities or ability.
But recently an international group of researchers began to wonder whether part of the cause might lie deeper, in how we think.
For an earlier review, these scientists had examined past research about exercise attitudes and behaviour and found that much of it showed that people sincerely wished to be active.
In computer-based studies, for example, they would direct their attention to images of physical activity and away from images related to sitting and similar languor.
But, as the scientists knew, few people followed through on their aims to be active.
So maybe, the scientists thought, something was going on inside their skulls that dampened their enthusiasm for exercise.
To find out, they recruited 29 healthy young men and women.
All of the volunteers told the scientists that they wanted to be physically active, although only a few of them regularly were.
The researchers fitted each of their volunteers with a cap containing multiple electrodes that read and recorded the brain’s electrical activity.
Then they had the men and women complete an elaborate computer test designed to probe how they felt about exercise.
In the test, the volunteers were assigned an avatar, shaped like a stick figure. Their avatar, which they could control by pressing keys, could interact on the screen with other, individual stick-figure images related to being active or physically inert.