We are programmed for laziness



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According to the World Health Organization, 3.2 million deaths are attributable to lack of physical activity each year. A finding that raises an issue: why are we unable to be physically active when we

This article is signed by Boris Cheval of the University of Geneva, Matthieu Boisgontier of the University of British Columbia and Philippe Sarrazin of the University of Grenoble Alps. The original version of this article was published in the site The Conversation, of which franceinfo is a partner.


If you have to do violence to get off your couch and engage in physical activity, make sure you are not alone in this case! For decades, communication campaigns have encouraged us to do exercises. However, about 30% of adults have insufficient physical activity. And this inaction is constantly increasing everywhere on the planet.

France is no exception to the rule. While "doing more physical activity" is among the top 5 best New Year's Day resolutions, 3 in 4 French people are not sufficiently active. Yet, according to the World Health Organization, 3.2 million deaths are attributed to this lack of physical activity each year, one death every 10 seconds.

A finding that raises an issue: why are we unable to be physically active when we want to?

To explain this struggle between our healthy intentions and contrary impulses, scientific theories as models of dual processes have been developed. In these models, the mechanisms that explain our behavior are divided into two categories: the rational mechanisms, managed by the reflected system, and the emotional mechanisms, managed by the impulsive system. The latter organizes the automatic and instinctive part of our behavior. It may facilitate or, on the contrary, prevent the reflected system from establishing our intentions.

This second case was clearly illustrated by a study we conducted. Its objective was to understand the conditions of effectiveness of the messages promoting physical activity. In other words, we wanted to know whether reflection can nullify our impulses when it comes to motivating ourselves to be more physically active. "Participants first attended a presentation outlining recommendations for Health Beneficial Physical Activity (30 minutes of daily exercise divided into sequences of at least 10 minutes on most days of the week). To measure their impulsive tendency to approach sedentary behaviors, they performed an experimental task: the dummy game.

It consists of moving an avatar on the computer screen using the keys on the keyboard. In one of the conditions of the experiment, the participant should approach the avatar as fast as possible of the images that represent a physical activity (walking, cycling, swimming …) and away from images that represent a sedentary activity (television, hammock, escalator …). In the other condition, it is the opposite, the avatar should be approached images evoking the images of sedentary and remote exercise. The faster the participant is able to approach sedentary images, rather than moving away from them, the more likely they are to be impulsive toward a sedentary lifestyle.

After this task, participants were given an accelerometer to record their daily physical activity and then returned home. A week later, the debriefing occurred.

The results of this experiment show that well-formulated health messages can be effective in generating intentions. In fact, participants who received the message of promoting physical activity expressed a stronger intention to exercise than those who received the message of promoting healthy eating. But planning to do physical exercises does not mean that you will actually get into it, and not all participants were able to convert their intention into behavior.

It is often easier to give in to the sedentary urge.
It is often easier to give in to the sedentary urge. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

Only those with a weak impulsive tendency to address sedentary behaviors were able to do so. On the other hand, participants who were strong in this trend failed to turn their intention into action. In other words, the conscious intention to be active has lost the struggle against an automatic tendency to pursue sedentary behavior.

Why are these sedentary behaviors so attractive when they are harmful to our health?

If this attraction for sedentarism seems paradoxical today, it is logical when examined in the light of evolution. In fact, when access to food became difficult, sedentary behaviors made it possible to protect the energy that was decisive for survival.

This tendency to minimize unnecessary efforts could explain the current pandemic of physical inactivity, since genes that allow individuals to survive are more likely to be present in subsequent generations.

In a recent study, we sought to assess whether our automatic attraction for sedentary behavior was inscribed in our brain. Participants in this study also had to play the manikin, but this time the electrodes recorded the activity of their brain.

The results of this experiment show that, in order to move away from sedentary images, our brain needs to employ more resources than to depart from images of physical activity. In everyday life, moving away from the ever present sedentary opportunities in our modern environment (escalators, elevators, cars …) would therefore need to overcome a sedentary attraction that would be anchored in our brain.

A sedentary lifestyle is well anchored in our brains.
A sedentary lifestyle is well anchored in our brains. (SHUTTERSTOCK)

We should not believe, however, that we have evolved only to minimize unnecessary efforts; we also evolved to be physically active. About 2 million years ago, when our ancestors converted to a hunter-gatherer lifestyle, physical activity became an integral part of their daily lives, averaging 14 km per day.

Natural selection has thus favored individuals who can accumulate a great deal of physical activity while being saved. These individuals were those in whom physical activity was associated with analgesic, anxiolytic or euphoric secretion.

The good news is that these hormonal processes are still there and they are waiting for one thing: being solicited. The first step to an active lifestyle is to become aware of this force that pushes us toward minimizing our efforts. This awareness helps to better support the innumerable sedentary opportunities that surround us.

We should avoid giving in to relieve.
We should avoid giving in to relieve. MARK MARTINS / PIXABAY

Also, since, like our ancestors, the vast majority of us do physical activity only when it is fun or necessary, the best way to promote it is to make it enjoyable. We need to (re) structure our environments to promote it, especially during our daily trips.

For example, public policies should develop open, safe and well-maintained public infrastructure and spaces to promote access to adequate places for walking, cycling and other physical activities. The architecture of the new buildings should also encourage our physical activity throughout the day, with emphasis on accessibility of the staircase, standing workstations, etc.

For us, then, we know how to take advantage of these opportunities to reduce our sedentary lifestyle … Go for your sneakers!

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