Lack of physical activity causes one death every 10 seconds.

If it is hard for you to get up from the couch to perform physical activity, do not worry, you are not alone.

For decades, we have seen communication campaigns that encourage us to exercise. However, about 30% of adults do not get enough physical activity, and the percentage continues to increase worldwide.

According to the World Health Organization, 3.2 million deaths are attributed to this lack of physical activity every year, which is equivalent to one death every 10 seconds.

This fact raises a question: why are we unable to be physically active even with the intention of doing so?

The conflict between reason and emotions

Scientific theories such as double process models have been developed to explain this struggle that takes place between our healthy intentions and the opposite impulses.

In these models, the mechanisms that explain our behavior are divided into two categories: the rational mechanisms, managed by the reflexive system, and the emotional mechanisms, governed by the impulsive system.

This last system organizes the automatic and instinctive part of our behaviors. It can facilitate or, on the contrary, prevent the reflexive system from putting our intentions into practice.

This second assumption is clearly illustrated with a study carried out with the sole purpose to understand the effectiveness of the messages that promote physical activity.

In other words, we try to determine if reflection can overcome our impulses when it comes to motivating ourselves to be more physically active.

First, the participants attended a presentation that presented recommendations regarding healthy physical activities at a rate of 30 minutes per day following sequences of at least 10 minutes.

To measure their impulsive tendency to approach sedentary behaviors, scientists then carried out an experimental task: the mannequin game.

This task involves moving an avatar on a computer screen using the keyboard. In one of the parts of the experiment, the participant has to bring the avatar as quickly as possible to images that represent a physical activity and away from images that represent a sedentary activity.

Elsewhere, the opposite is true: the avatar must approach the images that evoke sedentary lifestyle and move away from the images that represent exercise.

The faster the participant approaches sedentary images instead of moving away from them, their impulsive tendency towards sedentary lifestyle is considered to be stronger.

After this task, the participants were given an accelerometer to record their daily physical activity and went home. A week later, the results were collected and commented.

These results reveal that well-formulated health messages can be effective in raising an intention.

Indeed, participants who received the message that encouraged physical activity had a stronger intention to exercise than those who received the message that promoted healthy eating.

But the intention of doing physical exercise does not really mean that we are going to do it and not all participants managed to convert the intention into behavior.

Only those with a low impulsive tendency to approach sedentary behaviors managed to do so, and conversely the participants with a strong tendency towards these behaviors were not able to transform the intention into acts.

In other words, the conscious intention to be active lost the fight against an automatic tendency to seek sedentary behavior.

Why are these sedentary behaviors so attractive if they are harmful to our health?: The law of minimal effort.

Although this attraction to sedentary lifestyle seems paradoxical today, it is logical when examined from the point of view of evolution.

When it was difficult to access food, sedentary behaviors could save energy, something that was essential for survival.

This tendency to minimize useless efforts could explain the pandemic of the lack of current physical activity, since the genes that allow individuals to survive are more likely to be present in the following generations.

In a recent study, we tried to assess whether our automatic attraction to sedentary behaviors was recorded in our brain.

Participants in this study also had to play the dummy, but, on this occasion, electrodes recorded brain activity.

The results of this experiment show that, in order to get away from sedentary images, the brain must display more important resources than to move away from physical activity images.

Therefore, in daily life, to get away from the ubiquitous sedentary opportunities in our modern environment it would be necessary to overcome a sedentary attraction that is deeply rooted in our brain.

However, we should not believe that we have evolved solely to minimize useless efforts, but that we have also done so to be physically active.

About 2 million years ago, when our ancestors moved into a hunter-gatherer way of life, physical activity became an inherent part of their daily lives, since they traveled an average of 14 km a day.

Therefore, natural selection favored individuals capable of accumulating a large amount of physical activity, while dosing energy. 

In these individuals, physical activity was associated with the secretion of antidolorous, anxiolytic or even euphoric hormones.

The good news is that these hormonal processes are still present in us and are just waiting for us to resort to them.

The first step towards an active way of life is to be aware of that force that drives us towards the minimization of efforts. With this awareness, we can better resist the countless sedentary opportunities that surround us.

On the other hand, and since, like our ancestors, the vast majority of us do not practice a physical activity unless it is fun or necessary, the best way to encourage it is to make it enjoyable. Therefore, it is necessary to structure our environments to favor it, especially during our daily journeys.

For example, public policies should develop open, safe and well-maintained public spaces and infrastructure to favor access to suitable environments for running, cycling and performing any other physical activity. 

The architecture of the new buildings should also encourage our physical activity throughout the day, giving priority to access to stairs, standing jobs, etc.

Then we will be responsible for knowing how to take advantage of these opportunities to reduce our sedentary lifestyle.

In 2016, three out of every ten inhabitants of the planet, which is equivalent to more than 2,2 billion people, were overweight, and more than 796 million were obese, according to data from the World Health Organization (WHO).

Such an extent converts excess accumulated fat into something much more serious than a local problem – let alone aesthetic – and the agency itself dedicated to public health policies qualified obesity as a “global epidemic of the 21st century.”

Obesity is the trigger of numerous and dangerous health problems, such as type 2 diabetes, metabolic syndrome, heart disease, strokes, various types of cancer and respiratory disorders.

There is no doubt about its impact as a risk factor, but should it be treated as a disease? Would that drive a medical solution to the problem?

These are questions that have the medical community engaged in intense debate. No one doubts that behind the discussion, which has recently been aired in an article published in the British Medical Journal

Obesity is an anomalous form of interaction with the environment, and that depends on the complex overlapping of various mechanisms If it is treated as a disease, we are obliged to pay attention and subsidize drugs and techniques for its treatment.

Attention to people who are overweight, obese and morbidly obese generates an extra cost for the National System of Health. So, the response of the health system is poor, and despite good epidemiological studies on the prevalence of obesity, there is a clamorous lack of prevention measures.

Considering obesity as a disease would imply improving patients’ access to treatments: The arrival of new, safer and more effective drugs could generate a lot of frustration if the patient does not have access to them. The expectation is very positive in the results of studies with drugs in development, but the economic crisis forces us to control health expenditure.

A person is obese when his body mass index is above 30. Although years ago the perimeter of the waist was also taken into account in its diagnosis the body composition was not taken into account, since in the usual clinical practice there were no precise and reliable devices such as the ones being used now.

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