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Why It's So Hard for Humans to Get Physically Active

Just like animals, we're wired to expend as little energy as possible.

Key points

  • Humans are drawn toward minimizing effort whenever possible, especially in the domain of physical activity.
  • Strategies that reduce the perception of effort during physical activity can help bridge the gap from intention to action.
  • Enhancing the meaningfulness and social context of physical activities may also help people get more active.

Animals are meant to move. A fundamental feature of the animal kingdom is predator and prey interactions. This is based on an evolutionarily conserved drive towards taking action to get food or avoid being the food. Underlying all of this is a powerful principle to expend as little energy as possible. Animals survive in the wild by only expending energy as needed.

Many of our basic intrinsic drives are predicated on similar drives to all other animals. Except that for modern humans living in civilization, the predator/prey relationship doesn't have much direct value. Getting food is pretty easy. Going to the grocery store or getting stored groceries from the kitchen is a much easier task than hunting an animal or gathering nuts, fruits, and vegetables from the field. And when folks are getting food, they don't fear being preyed upon.

Despite that modern society has reduced or obliviated its utility, the principle of thriftiness about energy still permeates all our actions and inactions and emerges in many fascinating ways. One intriguing approach has recently been taken in the domain of physical activity.

We prefer things that seem easier

Boris Cheval at the University of Geneva in Switzerland and Mattieu Boisgontier at the University of Ottawa in Canada proposed an explanation for why so many of us humans have such a difficult time doing something we know is good for us yet often just can't seem to get around to doing — physical activity.

In a paper published in Exercise and Sport Sciences Reviews, Cheval and Boisgontier outline "The Theory of Effort Minimization in Physical Activity." This theory is essentially about the neuropsychology of health behavior. Cheval and Boisgontier rightly point out that many people who earnestly intend to become physically active fail in their goals. Drawing from many sources, the authors suggest that humans are drawn toward minimizing effort whenever possible and especially in the domain of physical activity. Considerable application of cognitive resources is needed to counter the resistance towards effort and this is also affected by the experience of discomfort that arises from doing physical activity.

Reducing the perception of effort may increase uptake

The main point is that a better understanding of the factors in the gap between intention to do physical activity and actually getting active can lead to better strategies. These might include things like distractions that minimize the awareness of discomfort or effort itself, as well as the broader implications about how the environmental design of modern living relieves significant pressure to make an effort. Enhancing the meaningfulness and social context of physical activities may also help.

An important part of the approach taken by Cheval and Boisgontier is that it opposes a traditional way efforts to increase activity have typically taken and which have often been led by folks who are already active. Messaging on health outcomes and benefits needs to be better aimed at those who are currently inactive and facing the barrier of the gap towards becoming active. Minimizing the perception of effort that many face may help overcome the drive to minimize effort itself.

Minding the gap in the minds of those moving

It's okay to acknowledge that we have real biological imperatives towards effort minimization as part of our animal natures. This acknowledgment does not, though, mean we must accept such drives. We can choose to become more physically active and leap over the gap between this intention and our desired actions. It isn't always comfortable but it is useful and relevant for truly becoming the healthy animals in motion that people really are meant to be.

(c) E. Paul Zehr (2021)