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The Fascinating Theory About Why You Hate Exercise (And What To Do About It)

Shannon Harvey

I was inspired to write this week’s blog after I had an email from a regular reader who is a physiotherapist-turned yoga instructor, and who wanted to know how I’m finding time to take care of my physical body whilst juggling full-time work, parenting, wife-ing, whole-food cooking, and all the mindfulness meditating that I’m committed to as part of my new film project.

As a health journalist who lives with an autoimmune disease (the most recent diagnosis is Sjogren’s disease) I’m all-too aware of the importance of moving my body regularly. I’ve interviewed leading experts, written a ton of blogs, and devoted a whole chapter in my book to the importance of moving more and sitting less. The evidence unquestionably shows that even if you have a chronic illness like I do, exercise is a key to living well. Doctors are even hailing physical activity, “The Miracle Drug.”

So, with all that said, you would think that finding time for daily movement would come easily to this very aware, very motivated, health journalist. But it doesn’t.

As I’ve written about in posts such as Will vs Skill: Making Healthy Changes Last, knowing and doing are two completely different things. Here in Australia, nearly one in three adults are insufficiently active.

But why? Why do so many of us fail to act in our own best self-interest? Why do most of us avoid exercise even though it is so vital for our health?

It turns out there’s a fascinating new idea being proposed by evolutionary biologists that may explain it all. Among others, a team of Brown University researchers say the problem isn’t that we’re weak-willed, or fundamentally flawed. The problem is that we’re programmed to loathe exercise.

Back in the days when early humans were roaming the Savannah, our ancestors had the opposite energy-balance problem that we have today. They didn’t need to worry about fitting in 30 minutes of cardio each day, their survival relied upon vast amounts of physical exercise simply to get enough food and avoid predators. If they wanted to stay alive long enough to pass their genes on to their kids, they needed to conserve their energy whenever possible.

It’s a bit like the evolutionary explanation for why we love eating high-fat, high-sugar, energy-dense foods, despite the fact that they’re a major driver of the obesity epidemic. What was once good for us in an ancient survival-of-the–fittest environment is now problematic.

All this may explain why so many people report feeling good after exercise, but feeling bad during exercise and why we have an in-built, automatic preference to take the easy option to our destination (escalators vs stairs, flat vs hill). It may also explain why few of us feel any resistance to lying on the couch and watching television. Our ancestors needed so much energy for hunting, gathering and raising kids, they had to rest whenever they could.

Of course, this is just a theory and in the absence of a time-machine traveling scientific laboratory, we can’t put this one to the test. It’s also important to note that the experts aren’t suggesting that evolution is the only reason many of us don’t like working out. Some people don’t have access to safe and affordable places to exercise, others feel embarrassed, lack social support, don’t know where to start, or had negative experiences in childhood that turned them off. In my case, it’s a time-thing. There are just so many other things I’d rather do instead.

So what to do?

Here in Australia, the Federal Government has launched a gazzilion dollar media blitz to get us up and moving.

As a filmmaker I can appreciate the production quality of the advertisement but I must confess, the campaign did nothing for me. I’m just not sporty, so images of high-achieving athletes don’t inspire me to move one inch.

This speaks to the problem of motivating us to override our innate lazy-instincts. The same message that gets my 15-year-old neighbour to put down the game controller and go kick a soccer ball is not going to inspire my 89-year-old grandmother to take up tai-chi. As Sandra Jones recently wrote in The Conversation, most media campaigns like this don’t work.

Although all this may come across like I’m arguing that we are pre-destined to be physically inactive and resistance is futile, we mere mortals can make conscious and clever decisions to overcome even the strongest of our innate behavioural tendencies.

After many conversations with experts, I’ve adopted a slew of sneaky tricks to get myself moving more and sitting less. As I wrote in my piece Why I Use A Sit-Stand Desk, I’ve come to the conclusion that sitting all day at work is crazy. I wear an attractive-looking fitness tracker that functions as an analogue watch, but this is less about counting steps and more about having a friendly little reminder on my wrist which gently enquires, “Shannon, have you moved your butt today?”

I’ve also found a cheap gym that doesn’t have an over-abundance of discouraging boob tubes, and although I prefer to walk outside, having this as an option means that rain isn’t an obstacle. At home, I’ve placed no less than three yoga mats in strategic locations, which makes it easy to flop onto a mat and breathe when the opportunity arises.  

But there’s one more strategy that I think has worked above and beyond any of the others to motivate me to get up and go and it ties in nicely with the one really useful takeaway from my discovery of what I call the “Evolutionary Theory of Why Exercise Sux.”

The Brown University research team think that we should follow in the footsteps of our ancestors and choose exercise that we find purposeful. They reason that ancient man didn’t do 100 metre sprints because he wanted defined glutes, rather, he wanted breakfast. Likewise ancient woman didn’t bend and stretch to prevent neck tension, she needed to feed the kids. The researchers think that by increasing activities such as walking or cycling to get somewhere we need to go, or planting a garden for producing fresh fruits and vegetables, we may be able to overcome our in-born resistance to getting up and going. I suspect this is the same reason that runners like signing up for marathons, and sports teams train for finals.

By far, the single most motivating thing that gets me away from my desk and out the door is having a trove of work-related audio books or podcasts ready to go. This way, I don’t feel as though I’m walking to exercise, I’m walking so that I can get some quality research done. It’s a neat trick and it works. Every time.

Speaking of which, I better go. I have research to do.

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