Human Mind: Both the Cause and Solution to the Global Pandemic of Physical Inactivity
Objective: To explain the global pandemic of physical inactivity. An innate human tendency to choose an alternative that leads to the same goal with the least amount of effort is a major obstacle for sustained physical activity. A path of least resistance for goal achievement is selected because it requires less effort and energy, causes less cognitive strain, and provides faster gratification. Physical activity, in contrast, demands cognitive and physical energy, is cognitively straining, and necessitates delay of gratification. On first glance, then, it is a small wonder that physical inactivity has become a global pandemic. Theory and Evidence: While the human mind, through its conscious and nonconscious processing, inherently works against physical activity, it can be harnessed to make sustained physical activity possible. Conscious processing works against exercise when it makes people think, “should or should I not go for a run/walk”? Nonconscious processing also works against exercise because it, in and of itself, is inclined to select a path of least resistance and immediate gratification (e.g., TV watching). Yet, nonconscious processing can be made to work for physical activity when exercise is continuously repeated as a response to a situational cue (e.g., sneakers placed next to a door) without cognitive deliberations. Constant repeats of the same physical activity strengthen the cue-behavior link and eventually make the behavior nonconsciously driven and automatic. Thus, paradoxically, nonconscious processing seeks to make demanding and effortful activities paths of least resistance through constant repeats of behavior. Conclusion: As exercise is more of a cognitive than physical battle, delegation of the decision to exercise to nonconscious processing increases the likelihood of sustained physical activity. But if the activity is not repeated with regularity, any decision to engage in physical activity has to rely on conscious thoughts, which, at best, can make people only “occasional” exercisers. Practical Implications: Conscious thoughts, however, can be used to serve nonconscious processing when one’s environment is rearranged to maximize situational cues for exercise and minimize cues for competing activities. Another important (conscious) strategy is to build an exercise infrastructure via if-then plans of when, where, how, and with whom to exercise. These implementation intentions quickly become nonconsciously operated and automatic, thus enhancing the likelihood of sustained physical activity. In this process, personal physicians can play a major role.
Physical Activity, Exercise, Conscious-nonconscious Processing, Automaticity, Motivation, Behavioral Medicine, Health Practices
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