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The brain’s instinct to conserve energy makes people lazy

A new study from the University of British Columbia (UBC) has revealed that our brains prefer lying on the couch as opposed to being physically active. The research suggests that the brain is actually hardwired to find laziness attractive.

Study senior author Matthieu Boisgontier is a postdoctoral researcher in the Department of Physical Therapy at UBC.

“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,” explained Boisgontier. “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.

The researchers set out to investigate what they refer to as the “exercise paradox,” which is the contradiction between society’s desire for people to become more physically active and the reality that humans are becoming generally less active.

The study was focused on young adults who were given control of an on-screen avatar. The experts flashed small images across the computer screen that depicted either physical activity or inactivity.

The participants were instructed to move the avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity, and then were instructed to do the opposite.

Electrodes recorded the brain activity of the individuals during the trials. The measurements revealed that participants were faster at moving away from lazy pictures and toward active pictures. However, electroencephalograms revealed that moving away from lazy pictures required the brain to work harder.

“We knew from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviors and moving toward active behaviors,” said Boisgontier. “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. These results suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviors.”
Now that the experts are aware of the brain’s tendency toward laziness, further research will be needed to explore whether the brain can be reconditioned.

“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,” said Boisgontier.

The study is published in the journal Neuropsychologia.

By Chrissy Sexton, Staff Writer

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