“sleeping” by Venturist is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Our Brains Are Hardwired To Prefer the Sofa to the Gym

MedicalResearch.com Interview with:
“sleeping” by Venturist is licensed under CC BY 2.0Matthieu Boisgontier  PhD

Movement Control & Neuroplasticity Research Group
KU Leuven
Brain Behaviour Laboratory
University of British Columbia, Canada

MedicalResearch.com: What is the background for this study? What are the main findings?

Response: For decades, society has encouraged people to be more physically active. Yet, despite gradually scaling up actions promoting physical activity across the years, we are actually becoming less active. From 2010 to 2016, the number of inactive adults has increased by 5% worldwide, now affecting more than 1 in 4 adults (1.4 billion people). This context raised the question: Why do we still fail to be more physically active?

Our hypothesis was that this failure is explained by an “exercise paradox” in which conscious and automatic processes in the brain come into conflict. To illustrate this paradox, you can think of people taking the elevator or escalator when they go to the gym, which does not make sense. This non-sense, this paradox, could be due to the fact that their intention to exercise come into conflict with an automatic attraction to resting in the elevator.

MedicalResearch.com: What did you test?

Response: Participants performed a task in which they approached stimuli depicting sedentary behaviors and avoided stimuli depicting physical activity, as fast as possible, in a condition and did the opposite in another condition. Then, we compared the time required to avoid or approach sedentary behaviors and physical activity.

MedicalResearch.com: What are the main findings?

Response: Results showed that participants were faster at avoiding sedentary behaviors compared to physical activity, and even more in participants who were more physically active. The reaction-time difference was in the order of 30 milliseconds in average and 45 milliseconds for more active participants. This result was expected because it has been reported multiple times before. The novelty of our study lies in the fact that this faster avoidance of sedentary behaviors is at the cost of an increased recruitment of frontal brain resources involved in conflict monitoring and inhibition. 

MedicalResearch.com: What should readers take away from your report? 

Response: The take home message for the reader is that your brain is inherently attracted to your sofa and that to inhibit this attraction, it has to fight by involving more resources. Being aware of this conflict taking place in your brain is already an important step toward the counteraction of physical inactivity.

The take home message for public health policies is that the pandemic of physical inactivity could be driven by an automatic resistance to the conscious motivation to engage in activities associated with higher energetic costs. Therefore, part of the massive investment aiming at increasing intentions to be active should be redirected towards the development of research projects aiming at understanding and counteracting the mechanisms underlying this automatic resistance. 

MedicalResearch.com: What recommendations do you have for future research as a result of this work? 

Response: It is important to keep in mind that science is a slow and long process. This is the first study to investigate the brain processes underlying the exercise paradox. Therefore, more research involving replications and studies using different techniques and approaches are required to strengthen and refine our results. When this is done, it will be important to test whether and how this automatic attraction to sedentary behaviors can be retrained on the long-term.


Boris Cheval, Eda Tipura, Nicolas Burra, Jaromil Frossard, Julien Chanal, Dan Orsholits, Rémi Radel, Matthieu P. Boisgontier. Avoiding sedentary behaviors requires more cortical resources than avoiding physical activity: An EEG study. Neuropsychologia, 2018; 119: 68 DOI: 10.1016/j.neuropsychologia.2018.07.029 

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Last Updated on September 18, 2018 by Marie Benz MD FAAD