When it comes to exercise, we all know it’s good for us, and that we should do it, but many of us don’t. Some people desire to do more, but that’s about it.

It’s recommended that all adults get at least 20-30 minutes per day of exercise. That’s really not that much yet globally 31% of people are inactive and when you look at more developed countries like the United States and Canada, a whopping 79% and 78% are inactive.

Why is it that with something that’s so good for us, we choose not to do it? A lot of people blame not having enough time, or it not being convenient to exercise. But as I’ve discussed earlier, it isn’t that hard to get in your 20-30 minutes of exercise per day.

Perhaps people don’t know they need to exercise, or know what type they should do. Some may think you need to go for a run or to the gym to exercise, and just plan hate doing that.

Exercise isn’t alone. There are many examples of people engaging in behaviours we know aren’t good for us. A lot of smokers know that it’s bad for them yet continue to smoke. Although smoking is complex in that it can be physically addictive, but even simple behaviours, such as texting while driving or putting on one’s seatbelt while driving doesn’t always happen. One can’t really argue that it takes too much time to put on a seatbelt.

The fact that we willingly engage in risky behaviours despite knowing the potential harm they may cause tells us that knowledge doesn’t always lead to behaviour. Knowledge is definitely needed for people to make a change, and for many smokers, it’s the knowledge of improved health that acts as their motivation to quit. Yet it is only one aspect of changing behaviour.

Not getting enough exercise is pretty much a first world problem, although it is creeping into all societies around the globe. Physical activity tends to be greater in countries that are less economically developed. Thinking of how people live in less developed countries, I don’t think it’s because they have any more time on their hands, and they certainly don’t have greater access to gyms. It’s also unlikely that they have different genetics, which makes them want to exercise. We also see high levels of activity in Amish communities in Canada, doing more than 15 000 steps per day. One big difference is in their environment and their daily lives, which are more active, in part, because there is less automation.

TV

Over decades we’ve spent considerable effort on trying to save effort (ironic isn’t it). We’ve automated many tasks from manufacturing to doing the laundry. Even a pretty inactive activity like watching TV has got less so over the years; with remote controls, we no longer have to get up to turn it on or switch channels. The whole idea with all this automation was to free us up from certain tasks and give us more time. But why would we spend all of this time and effort to automate physically demanding jobs so that we can go out and be active?

There are some obvious safety and efficiency reasons for all of this automation, but at the heart of it, perhaps it’s just that we want to do less, maybe even we’re lazy.

Looking back over the centuries and further, it’s only in the past 60 years or so that we’ve automated society and have access to plenty of food. Before that, many in society had labour-intensive lives and access to food wasn’t always consistent.

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This is how most humans lived for thousands of years, often having to expend a lot of energy, whether by hunting or farming, to get little amounts of food. As a result, just like any other animal, we’ve learned to conserve energy, which may actually be part of our genetic make-up. While no ‘lazy’ gene has been identified, some studies have found that it takes less brain power to be sedentary than it does to be active. Conserving energy is so ingrained in us that we’ll do that over saving time. A perfect example is how many people stand on escalators even though they would get to the top much faster if they walked.

Conserving energy when we needed it for finding food made sense, but now with automated food processing providing plenty of food, it works against us. In an era of plenty of food, being inactive contributes to a whole host of diseases and ailments in society.

So how do we go against thousands of years of evolution to become active again? Banning cars and going back to hunting and gathering probably aren’t realistic strategies.

There are some suggestions like making physical activity fun such as turning the stairs beside an escalator to piano keys. Two-thirds more people took the stairs as a result. Sometimes just a simple sign pointing out the stairs can change people’s behaviours. Most likely these people also saved time compared to waiting for the elevator.

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This suggests that we can, and should, engineer activity back into our lives, although in ways that are still efficient. Designing our communities that have a mix of residential and commercial use buildings will make the choice to walk or cycle to our destinations much easier. Most of us would leave the car at home get some milk if it was only three blocks away, same with our kids if the schools were that close.

Past societies that were active, were active because they needed to be. However, examples of current, modern societies that are active are that way because it’s the easier choice, whether that be faster, more convenient or less cost. In Copenhagen, bicycle use is greater than car use, and cities such as London aren’t far behind.

Even though we may be hardwired to save energy, it doesn’t mean we can’t be active. We just need to ensure there are good opportunities to do so, be it ones we make ourselves or that are communities support.