Did you resolve to get more exercise in 2019? Two weeks into the new year, how are you doing? If you’re like many people, you’ve found yourself slacking a bit – or a lot.
Before you put all the blame on your personal lack of willpower, consider some of the inborn factors that tempt us to avoid exercise … factors we may have inherited from our ancestors of long ago. In 2018, researchers from the University of Geneva in Switzerland used high-tech imagery to observe the brains of people who were making the decision between physical activity and doing nothing. Said researcher Boris Cheval, “A struggle breaks out between the desire to do nothing and the physical activity.” And it turns out that our brains may not be too keen on exercise.
Why does our lazy side often win? The researchers explained that the human brain evolved when our ancient ancestors had to work hard for their calories — and avoiding unnecessary activity increased their chance of survival. Hunting for meat and foraging for plant food took a lot of effort. They had no need to join a gym! But today, few of us get enough physical activity to keep us healthy unless we put forth an effort to get it.
Not only our bodies, but also our brains suffer if we lead a sedentary lifestyle. University of Arizona researchers say the reason once again lies with our ancient ancestors. Their brains evolved to need a combination of mental and physical exercise. “Foraging is an incredibly complex cognitive behavior,” explains anthropologist David Raichlen. “You’re moving on a landscape, you’re using memory not only to know where to go but also to navigate your way back, you’re paying attention to your surroundings. You’re multitasking the entire time because you’re making decisions while you’re paying attention to the environment, while you are also monitoring your motor systems over complex terrain.”
So, give your inner caveman a pep talk! Find motivation that works for you. Exercise with a friend or take a class. Find activities you enjoy; it doesn’t take running or calisthenics to give us a good workout. The University of Arizona suggests that activities using our brains and bodies together are especially good—everything from dancing to ping pong.
Boris Cheval says our civilized environment could also use some improvement. “Physical activity should be encouraged instead of putting temptations in the way to do less, such as escalators or elevators,” he says. “For instance, we could modify the way public spaces are designed to reduce the opportunities for individuals to engage spontaneously in behavior associated with minimizing effort.”
The information in this article is not meant to replace the advice of your healthcare provider. Talk to your doctor about an exercise program that is right for you.