Mental Health

Laziness Can Be Blamed On Brain's Inherent Tendencies, Study Shows

Hold on. Is it in our very nature to be couch potatoes?

Probably so, according to a new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Canada. Researchers found that our brains may have an innate attraction toward sedentary behaviors, requiring the use of additional resources to avoid it.

The study titled "Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study" was recently published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

"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 senior author of the study Matthieu Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher at UBC.

Despite widespread awareness and effort to encourage physical activity, statistics seem to suggest that people are becoming less active. What the Boisgontier suggests is that this decline may be due to the processes in our brain that have been developed and reinforced across evolution.

The research team recruited 29 young adults who were either physically active or were physically inactive with the intention of becoming physically active. For the experiment, they were given control of an on-screen avatar on a computer before them. 

Small images (showing either physical activity or sedentary behavior) flashed across the screen one by one. Here, the participants were told to move their avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity, and then vice versa. During this experiment, electrodes were used to follow and record what was happening in their brains.

The findings revealed that participants tended to be faster at moving toward active pictures and away from lazy pictures. However, their brain activity readouts (known as electroencephalograms) showed that their brains were working harder whenever they had to move away from the lazy pictures.

"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," Boisgontier said. "These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors."

After being ingrained in our nature, thanks to years of evolution, it remains a mystery whether we can "re-train" our brains to eradicate this attraction. If there was a way, it could prove to be a highly effective intervention to raise the overall activity levels of the human population. While this can only be addressed in further studies, these findings do bring experts a step closer by explaining why sedentary tendencies are so hard to resist.

"Anything that happens automatically is difficult to inhibit, even if you want to, because you don't know that it is happening. But knowing that it is happening is an important first step," Boisgontier said.