Are We Hardwired For Laziness? Brain Must Work Hard to Avoid Sloth

Summary: Researchers explore the exercise paradox, the feeling of wanting to become more physically active, but despite our best intentions, people actually become less active. The study reports our brains may simply be wired to want to conserve energy.

Source: University of British Columbia.

If getting to the gym seems like a struggle, a University of British Columbia researcher wants you to know this: the struggle is real, and it’s happening inside your brain.

The brain is where Matthieu Boisgontier and his colleagues went looking for answers to what they call the “exercise paradox”: for decades, society has encouraged people to be more physically active, yet statistics show that despite our best intentions, we are actually becoming less active.

The research findings, published recently in Neuropsychologia, suggest that our brains may simply be wired to prefer lying on the couch.

“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 Boisgontier, a postdoctoral researcher in UBC’s brain behaviour lab at the department of physical therapy, and senior author of the study. “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.”

For the study, the researchers recruited young adults, sat them in front of a computer, and gave them control of an on-screen avatar. They then flashed small images, one a time, that depicted either physical activity or physical inactivity. Subjects had to move the avatar as quickly as possible toward the pictures of physical activity and away from the pictures of physical inactivity–and then vice versa.

stick figure cartoons of people being active and lazy
The researchers asked volunteers to react to simple stick drawings depicting scenes of physical inactivity and physical activity, and discovered that brain activity differed depending on the scene. image is credited to UBC Media Relations.

Meanwhile, electrodes recorded what was happening in their brains. Participants were generally faster at moving toward active pictures and away from lazy pictures, but brain-activity readouts called electroencephalograms showed that doing the latter required their brains to work harder.

“We knew from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviours and moving toward active behaviours. 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 behaviours.”

The question now becomes whether people’s brains can be re-trained.

“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.

About this neuroscience research article

Boisgontier is also affiliated with the University of Leuven (Belgium) and the Research Foundation – Flanders (FWO). He led this study with Boris Cheval of the University of Geneva, and their international team of researchers from the University of Oxford (Eda Tipura), the University of Geneva (Nicolas Burra, Jaromil Frossard, Dan Orsholits), and the Université Côte d’Azur (Rémi Radel).

Funding: Funding provided by Research Foundation – Flanders.

Source: Erik Rolfsen – University of British Columbia
Publisher: Organized by
Image Source: image is credited to UBC Media Relations.
Original Research: Abstract for “Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study” by Boris Cheval, Eda Tipura, Nicolas Burra, Jaromil Frossard, Julien Chanal, Dan Orsholits, Rémi Radel, and Matthieu P. Boisgontierhi in Neuropsychologia. Published July 26 2018.

Cite This Article

[cbtabs][cbtab title=”MLA”]University of British Columbia”Are We Hardwired For Laziness? Brain Must Work Hard to Avoid Sloth.” NeuroscienceNews. NeuroscienceNews, 18 September 2018.
<>.[/cbtab][cbtab title=”APA”]University of British Columbia(2018, September 18). Are We Hardwired For Laziness? Brain Must Work Hard to Avoid Sloth. NeuroscienceNews. Retrieved September 18, 2018 from[/cbtab][cbtab title=”Chicago”]University of British Columbia”Are We Hardwired For Laziness? Brain Must Work Hard to Avoid Sloth.” (accessed September 18, 2018).[/cbtab][/cbtabs]


Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study

Why do individuals fail to exercise regularly despite knowledge of the risks associated with physical inactivity? Automatic processes regulating exercise behaviors may partly explain this paradox. Yet, these processes have only been investigated with behavioral outcomes (i.e., based on reaction times). Here, using electroencephalography, we investigated the cortical activity underlying automatic approach and avoidance tendencies toward stimuli depicting physical activity and sedentary behaviors in 29 young adults who were physically active or physically inactive but with the intention of becoming physically active. Behavioral results showed faster reactions when approaching physical activity compared to sedentary behaviors and when avoiding sedentary behaviors compared to physical activity. These faster reactions were more pronounced in physically active individuals and were associated with changes during sensory integration (earlier onset latency and larger positive deflection of the stimulus-locked lateralized readiness potentials) but not during motor preparation (no effect on the response-locked lateralized readiness potentials). Faster reactions when avoiding sedentary behaviors compared to physical activity were also associated with higher conflict monitoring (larger early and late N1 event-related potentials) and higher inhibition (larger N2 event-related potentials), irrespective of the usual level of physical activity. These results suggest that additional cortical resources were required to counteract an attraction to sedentary behaviors.

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