To some, when their energy starts to dip in the afternoon, there’s nothing better than a good nap. Many people feel happiest when they’re on the couch in comfy PJs, binging the latest episode of whatever series is making waves at the moment. On the other hand, there are people like me who, while still able to appreciate a good nap, get more energy from going for a thirty minute run and feel most at peace when surrounded by other sweaty people in the gym. But why is it that for some, exercise is seen a treat, while for others its basically a spandex-clad flagellation ritual to which they’d rather not subscribe?
Well, apparently we may be able to blame evolution for this, a little.
Daniel Lieberman, an expert in human evolutionary biology, suggests that “it’s not our natural inclination to exercise for health alone,” and that it’s perfectly normal to be physically lazy. For most of human evolution, he says, our instincts have been to conserve energy. This served us just fine because if you wanted to eat at all you had to work really hard. Nowadays, however, we don’t have that problem. Yet the desire to be horizontal while popping Pringles in our mouths persists, and it’s becoming increasingly easy to do so in contemporary life.
While many people are able to combat this by adopting regular exercise routines, other people find working out an insurmountable hurdle. According to social psychologist Emily Balcetis exercise actually is just harder for some people and this has a lot to do with our vision.
In her TED talk, why some people find exercise harder than others, Balcetis discusses many examples of the way our perception of the world around us is filtered through our mind’s eye, and thus is never objective. “dieters, for instance,” she says “see apples as larger than people who are not counting calories. Softball players see the ball as smaller if they’ve just come out of a slump, compared to people who had a hot night at the plate”. Clearly, what’s going on in our brains influences how we see the physical world around us, and therefore influences how we interact with it.
Balcetis and her team wanted to figure out why some people literally see exercise as being a bigger challenge than others, so they conducted a study. They objectively measured volunteers for their physical fitness and waist-to-hip ratios (a higher ratio indicates lower levels of physical fitness than a lower ratio) and then they told the participants that they’d be walking to a finishing line, while carrying extra weight. Before this, though, the participants had to estimate the distance to said finish line.
Balcetis’s team found that their waist-to-hip ratio could actually predict participants’ perception of the distance to the finish line. Those who were out of shape saw the finish line as being significantly further away than those with low waist-to-hip ratios. Because our bodies and our minds work in tandem, “people’s states of their own body changed how they perceived the environment,” says Balceti.
However, this this perception of exercise are more difficult isn’t necessarily fixed, and it doesn’t have to define one’s relation to fitness permanently. Even for those of us who struggle to get ourselves to the gym, hope isn’t lost.
Balcetis and her team did a second study in which they also considered the motivation of the participants to exercise. This study found that regardless of their own level of fitness, those who were motivated by the objective screening of their fitness to work out more, and who set achievable goals for themselves, actually perceived the distance to the finish line as even shorter. “Even the most out of shape individuals saw the finish line as just as close,” she concluded,”if not slightly closer, than people who were in better shape.”
This tells us that with a little bit of motivation and some clear goals, we can combat the distortion caused by our mind’s eye, which makes things seem challenging or impossible. Whether these goals are to climb Kilimanjaro or the hill outside your house makes no difference. If they’re attainable, they can serve as the motivation needed to eventually trick your brain into thinking that Kilimanjaro is only as steep as that hill in the suburbs.
“People are often made to feel bad [if they don’t exercise]” says Lieberman, “and I think that’s just as pernicious and wrong and irresponsible as shaming people for being overweight.It’s not our fault that we are physically inactive, we live in a world that encourages that”.
So let’s stop shaming people for wanting to chill at home on the weekends instead of running half marathons (or god forbid, full marathons). On a deep biological level, we ALL want to chill at home and rest, it just so happens that for some, it’s easier to fight that desire than for others because they’ve already found sufficient motivation to do so.
Eventually, the endorphin rush might be enough motivation to get off the couch and to the running track, pool or court. Until then, if you’re one who does struggle to meet your fitness goals, try breaking them up into smaller, more achievable goals. Remember that you may be perceiving exercise as a greater challenge than it actually is due to the subjective filtering that happens in your own brain, and actively try to combat it. And if you’re having a day where you REALLY just don’t want to get sweaty….
well, you can blame it on your biology and try again tomorrow.
if you’re looking for some ways to workout that don’t involve a pricey gym membership, check out this article about how to get fit on a budget.