The brain is where Matthieu Boisgontier and his colleagues went looking for answers to what they call the “exercise paradox”: for decades, society has encouraged people to be more physically active, yet statistics show that despite our best intentions, we are actually becoming less active.
The research findings, published recently in Neuropsychologia, suggest that our brains may simply be wired to prefer lying on the couch.
“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,” said Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s brain behaviour lab at the department of physical therapy, and senior author of the study. “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.”
For the study, the researchers recruited young adults, sat them in front of a computer, and gave them control of an on-screen avatar. They then flashed small images, one a time, that depicted either physical activity or physical inactivity. Subjects had to move the avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity — and then vice versa.