By: John Wang
You know you should’ve gone to the gym instead of lying on your couch and watching that last episode of Game of Thrones. But sometimes the warmth and comfort of a blanket burrito is too precious to give up for anything else in the world.
According to researchers at the University of British Columbia, you might be avoiding gym day not only because you are good at coming up with excuses, but also because of your predefined biological features — in particular, the massive, complex organ sitting on top of your shoulders — your brain.
Matthieu Boisgontier, the leading postdoctoral researcher at UBC’s Brain Behaviour Laboratory, called this the “exercise paradox”; that is, knowing that physical activity is significantly more beneficial than inactivity, we still incline towards the latter. Boisgontier and his colleagues hypothesized that there could be a hardwired mechanism embedded in our neural circuitry that favors laziness over exercise. The researchers recruited 29 young adults who were tasked to control an on-screen avatar in front of a computer. They flashed single images depicting either physical activity or physical inactivity, and asked the subjects to move the avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity. Then, subjects repeated the experiment, but with opposite goals — that is, moving the avatar towards the lazy pictures and away from the active pictures. Meanwhile, noninvasive electrodes recorded their brain activities using electroencephalography, which picks up the tiny electrical currents generated by the active neurons.
Boisgontier found that participants were generally faster at moving toward active pictures than moving away from lazy pictures, but the electroencephalograms showed that doing the latter required their brains to work harder. This increase in activity is nonetheless an unconscious one, where the brain regions that are responsible for automatic processes were responding the greatest when challenged with physical activities. In other words, the brain has to work extra hard to counteract the innate response that discourages physical activities.
One explanation suggests that there may be an evolutionary benefit to being lazy. According to Boisgontier, “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.” Therefore, natural selection preferred humans who were innately good at conserving energy when they didn’t need to expend it. What Boisgontier’s work shows is that overcoming this biological urge to be lazy is expensive. “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,” says Boisgontier. “These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviours.” This view supports a study by University College London published last year, which found that our brains may trick us into unconsciously viewing a low-effort option as preferable over options that require more effort.
Perhaps this provides the perfect excuse for not going to the gym. After all, it’s not that your will doesn’t want to; it’s your uncontrollable, subconscious self.
If we want to avoid a philosophical discussion on whether free will exists or not, perhaps we can turn to science for insights on plausible solutions. Numerous studies have demonstrated the brain’s ability to rewire. In fact, the brain is able to reorganize and restructure itself by creating new and strengthening old connections between different neurons and brain regions when needed. There are cases where patients are able to regain the function of their damaged brain regions through the adaptation of remaining healthy regions. Specifically, cell death due to injury immediately leads to heavy modifications in the neural network as neurons engage in synaptogenesis, which is the creation of new nervous connections. This entire process, also known as neuroplasticity, has allowed numerous stroke survivors to slowly regain their lost functions, such as speech or motor functions. Similarly, there are also neuro-cognitive training programs developed for recovering addicts, aiming to facilitate the reconstruction of a healthy and independent reward circuit from their drug abuses.
Therefore, we are not doomed to our couches for the rest of our lives just because our brain isn’t “optimized” to encourage physical activities. As much as the brain is able to encourage laziness, it is equipped with even more tools to encourage actions. If we consciously associate exercising as a positive, rewarding activity, we may then drive other neural circuits to override the “lazy” one. Furthermore, we can involve outside factors such as friends or training coaches to help us develop healthy habits. After all, whether it’s gobbling potato chips in front of the TV or sweating on a treadmill, it is up to you to decide which one to choose.
John Wang is a sophomore in Columbia College studying Computer Science and Neuroscience & Behavior. He is currently a research assistant in Yuste Lab, Neurotechnology Center, as well as a member of the Columbia Neuroscience Society.