Going to the gym doesn’t just require more physical effort than staying on the couch. According to a new Canadian study, simply thinking about exercise taxes the human brain.

Matthieu Boisgontier from the University of British Columbia led a team of researchers seeking an explanation for the “exercise paradox” – the idea that people are becoming more sedentary despite decades of education about the benefits of physical activity.

“A lot of money has been invested in being more physically active. People understand that it’s healthier, but the brain is actually preventing this healthier behaviour,” Boisgontier told CTV News Channel.

Boisgontier and his team believed the answer to that conundrum might lie in the brain. They say their research, published in the October edition of the journal Neuropsychologia, proves them right.

The researchers reached their conclusions by putting 29 people in front of computers and asking them to control on-screen avatars.

The group was shown a series of images displaying scenes of physical activity or inactivity. They were instructed to move their avatars toward activity-related images – such as a person climbing a set of stairs -- and away from the inactivity-related images – a personal lounging on a hammock, for example -- as quickly as possible.

All the while, subjects were hooked up to electrodes to monitor their brain activity.

Researchers found that moving the avatar away from scenes of inactivity exerted the subjects’ brains more than moving it toward scenes of activity. Researchers say the finding suggests people have a natural inclination toward laziness.

“We still have this inside our brain, but we need to fight it to be more physically active and more healthy,” Boisgontier said.

According to Boisgontier, humans’ tendency away from unnecessary exertion likely evolved because it lets individuals conserve energy and put it toward more important uses such as finding food, shelter and sexual partners.

But Laura Corbit, an assistant professor at the University of Toronto’s psychology department, suggested that the findings may be swayed by the fact that the study included participants who expressed a desire to boost their physical activity levels.

“So someone who may not want to make that change might not experience the consequence that the people in that experiment did,” Corbit told CTV News Channel.

Corbit also questioned the notion that human beings are “hardwired” to be lazy.

“Maybe it’s not an innate laziness, but it’s a pattern of behaviour that has become very routine in our lives. So if we’ve gotten used to being lazy, we’ve gotten used to not exercising, it’s really easy to slip back into that pattern of behaviour,” she said.

Future research could look at whether brains can be retrained to work around the automatic inclination toward inactivity.