Blame Evolution

Posted: April 22, 2011 in Motivation, Run, Training
Tags: ,
  • Long Run (click to see stats)
  • 21k (1:52:24)
  • Avg. Heart Rate = 155 bpm
  • Max. Heart Rate = 166 bpm
  • Avg. Pace = 5:21 /km
  • Max. Pace = 2:15 /km
  • Calories = 2000
  • Temp = 9º
  • SOTD: ‘Long Snake Moan’ by P.J. Harvey

What better way to avoid the chocolate and Jesus today but to lace up and get my fat ass out on the road; which is exactly what I did.  It’s become a bit of a Good Friday tradition actually, as it is with most holidays these days.  While out this morning, I was able to chew over an interesting article that appeared in the Globe & Mail (03/15/11) that someone forwarded me to read entitled: ‘Can’t motivate yourself to run?  Blame evolution’.  Of course, you can see how this would immediately capture my attention, particularly on a beautiful Spring day where I’d rather be sitting in my comfy chair nursing a chocolate bunny.

Like the author of this particular article (Mark Fenske), I also experience that feeling where although I enjoy running while I’m out doing it – the solitude, the focus, the fresh air, the mental release, etc. – I don’t seem to really look forward to them beforehand.  In fact, on most nights before a long run I will have trouble drifting off to sleep thinking about the distance, or the soreness I’m bound to experience come the next day.  Why is this exactly?  Surely if I enjoy the act of running itself I would also look forward to it, wouldn’t I?  However, on some days – as it was today – it’s all I can do but drag my ass out of bed and force myself out the door, but, once I’m out I love it.  So, it was kind of reassuring to know that I am not alone here.

One possibility put forth is that the human brain has evolved over time to discourage us from expending energy needlessly.  The claim being that our ancient ancestors existed in unpredictable environments (clearly, ancient man never had to content with dipshits in minivans and never-ending roadside construction) with scarce resources.  An aversion to unnecessary physical activity would have helped them conserve energy for situations in which it was really needed, such as finding food or fleeing from danger.  But doesn’t this contradict the whole Man as Persistence Hunter theory where mankind evolved to run long distances.  Surely that would have been hampered a bit if their brains were also telling them to forget the injured gazelle and hit up the Drive-Thru at MacDonald’s instead.  I’m confused…

Well, according to the article, recent neuroimaging research suggests that the striatum, a part of the basal ganglia near the center of each of the brain’s hemispheres, may be critically involved in making a choice away from actions that entail greater physical effort.

“When subjects were considering whether to perform a given action, neutral activity within one part of the striatum, the putamen, was found to decrease with the amount of physical effort the action would require.  And those actions requiring greater exertion were typically chosen less often than the easier options.”

By helping to produce an aversion to unnecessary activity, the striatum may be partly to blame for those moments of laziness when you’re only 2k into a long run, or when you’re trying to decide which route to ride, the difficult one with lots of steep challenging hills, or that flat, easy straight away that you’re already ridden a thousand times.  Most certainly, it would be to blame for the rising number of couch potatoes and armchair athletes.  Why actually go outside running, when I can play Wii Fit at home in my living room?

So why do I even go out at all then?  It is supposed that the decision towards greater physical activity can be enhanced if the reward for doing so is significantly greater than that of staying at home in your underwear.  Brain scans also show that the size of the reward is directly associated with activity in the nucleus accumbens, which is another part of the striatum linked to motivation.  So, in this way, this ‘Lazy Man’ theory does fit together with the ‘Man as Persistence Hunter’ theory where, the whole ‘eat-or-be-eaten’ nature of life demanded that the rewards of exerting oneself were great – meaning you got to live another day.  It’s easier to chase down that gazelle over 100 kilometers if it’s the only thing separating you from being another footnote in the annals of history.  Rest assured that if there had been a Macdonald’s around, that ancient man might have been lined up for a Double Bacon Gazelle Burger instead.

Shoot forward 3000 years or so, and, with all our modern conveniences, our motives for engaging in physical exercise has drastically changed.  And many of the rewards – better physical fitness and emotional health plus enhanced memory, cognitive control, etc. – take time to emerge.  Better to just stay home and watch Springer I guess.  There is no real urgency anymore.

Fortunately, in my case, I know all too well that running a marathon after a 4k swim and a 180k bike ride, will require some conditioning and the fear of ending up as a viscous stain along the race course somewhere smack dab in the middle of the Welsh countryside far out weights the fear of staying home to eat Peeps, Cadbury’s Cream Eggs, or what have you…lucky me.

  1. Jan says:

    Thinking of being found as a “viscous stain” would definitely do it for me too! 4k swim, 180 k bike ride and on man, how far is the run? I’m calling you SUPERMAN! It’s amazing to think of how far you’ve come?

  2. Carolyn H. says:

    I prefer to sit at home and use my shake weight.

    eating my chocolate bunny with the other arm.

    dual action workout.

  3. mom says:

    Come on Terry. You couldn’t wait to get into that Easter basket with its chocolate treats!

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