Feeling bad about not keeping that promise to get fit? Don't bother, humans are wired for inertia

If you're having trouble staying motivated, blame it on the lazy bones you inherited from your cave-dwelling ancestors.

Robin Roberts 6 minute read December 9, 2021
woman lies on the couch at home with a cat. work life balance, rest, meditation. Take a freelance break from work. Emotional and physical burnout. Restoration of mental health

We can overcome this tendency to torpidity. The bad news is, it will take, well, work. GETTY

Once again, as the year comes to a close, many Canadians are thinking about mustering up the resolve for some self-improvement. The top New Year’s resolutions are not hard to guess: to get fit and lose weight. These two things even rank higher on the list than spending more time with family and friends. But as we all know, for most of us, promises to be/eat/look better often fall flat weeks after the start of the year.

In fact, according to Ipsos, 78 per cent of us will have thrown in the towel by the middle of February. Why? It could be a paucity of willpower. It could be a dearth of motivation. It could be unrealistic goals. Or, it could be that we’ve inherited lazy bones from our cave-dwelling ancestors.

According to Matthieu Boisgontier, assistant professor at the Faculty of Health Sciences, University of Ottawa, and co-author of a UBC-led study published in Neuropsychologia, humans are hardwired to inertia thanks to our prehistoric relatives who conserved their energy for running after prey, running from predators, fighting for mates, and house-hunting for caves. And despite eons of evolution, our shiftless ways are only getting worse. ParticipAction’s newly released report card for 2021 gave Canadians — 88 per cent of us — a big F for not making the grade on the recommended physical activity requirements of 150 minutes a week, which puts us at increased risk for a litany of diseases and an early date with the grim reaper.

Boisgontier’s study plunked a group of young adults in front of a computer and gave them control over an on-screen avatar. As images of activity or inactivity flashed across the screen, they were instructed to move the avatar as quickly as possible between the two. While the participants were generally faster at moving toward the active pictures, it required their young brains to work harder at it. But what does it mean?

“We knew from previous studies that people are faster at avoiding sedentary behaviours and moving toward active behaviours,” he said. “[But] it shows this faster avoidance of physical inactivity comes at a cost — and that is an increased involvement of brain resources, [which] suggest that our brain is innately attracted to sedentary behaviours.”

The good news is, we can overcome this tendency to torpidity. The bad news is, it will take, well, work.

Earlier this year, Boisgontier co-authored a report called The Theory of Effort Minimization in Physical Activity that suggests humans seeking motivation to get fit could benefit from a little help from their environment.

“We have a spontaneous drive to minimize effort whenever the opportunity arises, so environmental factors [like technology designed to make our lives easier] are key in shaping our behaviours,” he says. “Promoting physical activity requires the development of an environment that triggers a spontaneous engagement in behaviours associated with higher, rather than lower, energy expenditure.”

In other words, we need more public policies, investments and incentives that make it easier to be active, such as reducing the number of escalators to encourage us to take the stairs; creating more bike lanes and walking paths to get us out of our cars; funding of sports teams and other group activities to get us in the game.

Boisgontier is also looking at the importance of a fit brain to go along with a fit body.

“Contrary to what was previously thought, cognitive abilities ward off inactivity much more than physical activity prevents the decline in cognitive abilities,” he says. “These results suggest that cognitive abilities and physical abilities are part of the same circle that can either be a virtuous one or a vicious one. Keeping both a cognitively stimulating and a physically active lifestyle is the best way to keep the virtuous circle going.”

Boisgontier adds that the more we engage in physical activity, the less cognitively demanding it will become. “But it can only work if we enjoy doing it,” he says.

And therein lies the rub. If we dread going to the gym or lacing up our runners, no amount of motivation will push us out the door, and that Neanderthal DNA wins.

“Our DNA is very powerful. It’s been around for millions of years and it’s not going anywhere,” says Dr. Shimi Kang, clinical associate professor at the UBC Department of Psychiatry. “[But] I wouldn’t want anyone to read this and think we’re just naturally unmotivated, that we can’t do anything about it. We can.”

And while she says she agrees with Boisgontier’s research, she also believes we can train our inner troglodytes by understanding motivation, and how it can change our lives today.

“I see many people who go to the gym and they’re stress exercising. They’re not actually [practicing] mindfulness,” she says. “And there are people who can exercise for one hour a day who are very sedentary [the rest of the day]. We’re not meant to sit all day long and exercise one hour; we’re meant to be moving constantly in our environment.”

In his book, The Motivation Myth, author and Inc. columnist Jeff Haden writes, “You don’t find motivation, it finds you. Motivation is the fire that starts burning after you manually, painfully, coax it into existence, and it feeds on the satisfaction of seeing yourself make progress. And there is only one recipe for gaining motivation: success. Specifically, the dopamine hits we get when we observe ourselves making progress.”

Kang also speaks about the effects of dopamine — on ourselves and our prehistoric relatives.

“We’re in a different place when we compare ourselves to hunter-gatherers because [of the] short bursts of dopamine that are in our environment, everything from sugar to social media — and dopamine’s a driver of motivation,” she says. “In the old days, it would be a sweet berry that would give us that hit of dopamine and it would motivate us to venture out to gather more. Now everything is so easy and accessible that we’re getting a dopamine elevation and then depletion, so we’re in this state of being addicted to short-term pleasure at the detriment of long-term motivation and happiness.”

Kang says the key to getting and staying motivated is to be aware of how that short-term pleasure can knock us off track and not only sabotage our goals, it can also hurt our health.

“Our lifestyles are very incompatible with our biology, and the increase in conveniences has paradoxically made us more sick — we have rising rates of chronic disease, whether it’s anxiety, depression, addiction, obesity, diabetes, chronic pain, you name it,” she says.

In the spirit of reaching a sustained state of motivation, Kang recommends incorporating three objectives into our lives: play, as in trying new things; social connection, as in bonding with others; and down time, which involves self-care.

“When we pay attention to these three things, we [activate] those three neuro chemicals, endorphin, oxytocin and serotonin, which balance out our dopamine,” she says, adding that our caveman ancestors had all that. “They had a lot of play, in terms of their whole day was exploration and learning and trial and error, they did a lot of bonding because they were always in groups and they also had a lot of down time — they slept quite a bit, and contemplated nature.”

It may be the season for self-improvement, but Maybe our knuckle-dragging, mouth-breathing, club-wielding forebears had it right after all.

Robin Roberts is a freelance writer for Healthing.ca. She can be reached here.

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