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Source: Ysign/Shutterstock

Contributed by Amanda Habermann, M.S., Sovereign Health

Keeping with our New Year’s resolutions to exercise or start a new weight loss regimen could benefit us in more ways than just shedding a few unwanted pounds; yet, many of our new goals and resolutions are short-lived as we struggle to incorporate long-term changes in our behavior.

Sure, at times we can get ahead of ourselves and set unrealistic goals that may be difficult for us to achieve or maintain, and we must overcome obstacles or barriers that can be detrimental to our success; however, it is also true that staying on track with our new goals and resolutions consists of much greater and complex processes than we may realize.

As creatures of habit, we often have difficulty incorporating new changes into our routines, no matter how beneficial they are for us, because we tend to do the things that make us feel good, secure and comfortable. Even when we are motivated and make reasonable efforts to change, why is it that we are still so resistant to changing our behavior, even when these changes are healthy or beneficial to us?

Our inertia works against us in achieving our goals

Surprisingly, inertia is an overlooked concept when it comes to understanding our inherent complex resistance to losing weight or beginning a new exercise routine. Inertia, or “a tendency to do nothing or to remain unchanged,” is at the headwinds of any change that we make in our lives. It helps to describe why our bodies tend to act against us when we try to begin a new diet or an exercise routine. The concept of inertia and the psychological difficulties of changing our behavior were examined more than 40 years ago in a Psychology Today article on familiarity breeding comfort rather than contempt. 

Our bodies' complex inertia, or resistance to change, is important for maintaining a state of equilibrium known as homeostasis. Homeostasis helps our bodies to maintain a normal body temperature, metabolism, weight and other functions that are necessary for our survival. Think about homeostasis as a micromolecular neurophysiological thermostat – when a room is too hot or too cold, the thermostat helps to adjust the temperature by either turning on the air conditioner or the heater, respectively.

In the same way, the body’s inertia can help to explain why it actively resists a new exercise or weight loss routine, as it leads to detectable physiological changes in heart rate, metabolism and respiration. These physiological changes are seen as a disruption of the body's homeostasis. As an effort to maintain homeostasis, the body’s complex inertia actively resists these physiological changes, even if they are positive changes like those resulting from exercise, said Scott Jeffrey.

Neurobiology of change

It might also be surprising to discover that the steps to making meaningful life changes can further be implicated by areas of the brain that control our habits and conscious decision-making abilities. Our basal ganglia in the ancestral or primitive brain are responsible for “wiring” habits. This cluster of nerve cell bodies is involved in functions such as automatic or routine behaviors (e.g., habits) that we are familiar with or that make us feel good. Such behaviors might include nail biting, smoking cigarettes or following the same routine every day without making changes to it.

Habits like exercise form when we repeatedly exercise or perform a certain behavior in a specific environment or context. When we do something like put a seatbelt on (an action) when we get into a car (a contextual cue), we develop automaticity, or an automatic behavior in response to the contextual cue. In the “Psychology of Habit,” Wendy Wood and Dennis Rünger from the department of psychology at UCLA wrote that while some of this automatic cuing may be unintentional, deliberately cuing ourselves could help us to engage in particular habits.

Any type of change like incorporating a physical activity into our routine after a period of being sedentary can go against the neural pathways that have become automatic to us. That is why we tend to fall back on our default or automatic behaviors when we try to implement changes like a new diet or physical activity after a period of inactivity.

Although we can consciously control the decision to work out, this is the responsibility of a separate region of the brain known as the neocortex, which controls conscious decision-making in the brain. Our conscious actions require much more effort. If we want to overcome a lack of motivation and other obstacles that are getting in the way of our success, frequent exercise and conscious action planning are involved in making an exercise habit stick, according to Lena Fleig and colleagues (2013).

Having a mental disorder can affect our ability to change behavior

People with mental disorders like depression can have difficulty changing their behaviors, especially as an aspect of the therapeutic process, because finding motivation to exercise and incorporate other positive changes can be difficult when experiencing a lack of interest in activities, which were at one time enjoyable. Symptoms such as these can make a change to the neuropsychological state of their inertia difficult. 

Changing and replacing “circuits” from a normal to depressed state or vice versa is a type of inertial process of neurochemical resistance of its own. Depression involves numerous mechanisms including neurotransmitters. These neurotransmitters send signals through circuits in the brain and are involved in processes such as regulating mood. These neurotransmitters can also become chronic and resistant to treatment, or in a state of negative inertia. The result is known as treatment-resistant depression, when a person does not respond to medications.

Similarly, people who have ADHD may have problems with attention and sequencing, which can contribute to procrastination and difficulty following through on their behavior. Along with their body’s inherent resistance to change, neurocognitive and behavioral symptoms associated with ADHD can have a substantial impact on their motivation, ability to plan, interest and focus when they begin a new exercise or dietary routine. As an attempt to overcome their inertia, or difficulty with change, people who have ADHD may benefit by sharing an activity with a group or a friend.  

Overcoming obstacles to our goals

It is important to recognize that our inherent complex resistance to losing weight can contribute to a lack of motivation when we begin a new exercise regimen or diet. By making ourselves commit to certain behaviors, we may increase our chances of success. Fleig and colleagues also suggested that frequent exercise and conscious action planning are involved in making an exercise habit stick. Overcoming the behavioral inertia that prevents us from implementing new changes, like eating a healthy diet or exercising, can benefit us in the long run and can improve our physical and mental health. Just remember that getting started and getting in the habit of our new diet or exercise routine is the hardest part.

About the Author

Ralph Ryback M.D.

Ralph Ryback, M.D., has taught at many institutions including Harvard Medical School. 

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