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laziness is normal

Updated: Apr 2, 2023

One of the things that I hear from folks quite often is that they find it hard to get motivated to exercise. “I know I should, but it’s just so hard,” they say– often in an embarrassed tone.”

It’s important to understand that our species did not evolve by “exercising.” While we often think of exercise as something that must be done in order to achieve health, happiness and social standing, the truth is that our ancestors didn’t exercise at all.

Sure, our hunt-and-gather forebears had to forage to find their food, but how intense was this movement? Based on anthropological studies of (the few remaining) indigenous groups that live a hunt-and-gather way of life show, hunting-and-gathering actually only takes a few hours a day. It’s done at a reasonably slow pace and may even include seated time (digging up tubers in a casual way, for example). Once the food is gathered, these folks enjoy time sitting and resting.

“Despite stereotypes of non-exercisers as lazy couch potatoes, it is deeply and profoundly normal to avoid unnecessarily wasting energy. Rather than blame and shame each other for taking the escalator, we’d do better to recognize that our tendencies to avoid exertion are ancient instincts that make total sense from an evolutionary perspective.” -Daniel E. Lieberman, “Exercised: Why Something We Never Evolved to Do is Healthy and Rewarding.”

The truth is that humans evolved by being very, very efficient with their energy. Consider for a moment that calories for our ancestors were a more precious commodity. When we weren’t using energy to perform necessary tasks (food, shelter, socialization, sex), it makes sense that they would do as little as possible. So, rest easy– literally. It’s really normal that you don’t want to exert unnecessary energy. That drive you feel to sit on the couch and do nothing is a very deep instinct. You’re not lazy, you’re just human!

For many of us, calories are easy to come by. Contemporary hunting-and-gathering involves a car trip to a grocery store, where we park as close to the entrance as we can. However, our bodies are designed to function more optimally when we’re getting a certain amount of movement; all of the systems of our body rely on movement in order to stay healthy.

The concept of exercise is a modern answer to our modern problem of not moving functionally as much as our bodies used to do.T We go to the gym, get on our treadmill, or roll out a mat, and spend an hour sweating in ways that our ancestors couldn’t possibly have imagined.

That’s great if you’re the kind of person that really enjoys those things– maybe you like the endorphins, or the socialization aspect, or you’ve found a routine that just really works for you.

But what about the rest of us– those whose natural desire to avoid unnecessary energy expenditure would keep us on the couch? How do we get motivated to do this thing that would make us feel better? Here are a few quick ideas to get you thinking.

  1. First, drop the shame and the blame, remembering that humans are innately “lazy.”

  2. If you don’t like the idea of exercise, stop calling it exercise and start getting more movement in throughout the day. Studies show that in some ways, moving throughout the day is more beneficial than sitting all day and then getting up for an hour of intense exercise. Schedule a twice-daily walk around the garden, your block, or your office. Park a little further away from your destination. Schedule interruptions into your daily schedule for household tasks (water your plants, make the bed, wash the dishes) or to refill your water bottle, stretch your back, visit a co-worker. It all adds up.

  3. Movement can be play, or a game, or just plain fun. Frisbee or ball with the kids, the dog, or the neighbor. Dancing. Jumping rope. Find some great music, a podcast or an audiobook and head out for a walk.

  4. Let go of “all or nothing” thinking. This is the biggest problem I see in some folks– they think if they’re “exercising,” they need to be doing the most, best, training-for-a-triathalon-type-of-training possible. When that fails (often due to injury or burnout), they are back to doing nothing. What can you do today that moves your body, feels good, and will leave you wanting to do more again tomorrow? That’s the thing to do.

  5. Rather than exercising to change your body (i.e., weight loss), try movement that feels good right now. This is so important. When we’re working toward a goal that involves some future version of ourselves, we’re deferring our pleasure in the moment, and reinforcing the idea that your body right now is less worthy of pleasure and appreciation.

  6. Consider a coach. I have learned (the hard way) to hire experts to help me. From taxes to legal to plumbing to how to lift a kettlebell, I have found that just googling it or thinking I can figure things out myself will often end badly. One-on-one support through private sessions is a really wonderful resource to address individual concerns that can’t be met in a group or online setting. In my own practice with clients, I use strength, yoga, and creative movement to help support nervous system health (i.e., stress and anxiety) and to create a greater sense of capacity to handle challenges.

What do you think– does this resonate? Drop your thoughts in the comments below and let me know how you work with your own human “energy conservation” tendencies!

This post was originally part of a newsletter that went out to my folks (if you’d like to get on that list, click here)!

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