It’s well-known that there’s a connection between physical inactivity, ill-health, and obesity. The general assumption is that physical inactivity is a cause of poor health, metabolic derangement, and fat gain. While not wrong, this presumption, which is certainly a very logical one, is incomplete, in the sense that it doesn’t encompass the full complexity of the aforementioned connection.
It’s certainly true that physical inactivity can cause weight gain and health deterioration. By itself, it won’t make you obese or acutely ill; however, it can certainly contribute to making you fat and sick. I don’t think anyone who’s familiar with the research on physical activity as it relates to human health will disagree with that. What’s important to point out though, is that things can also happen the other way around, in the sense that fat gain and ill-health can lead to sedentary behavior…
Inflamed bodies are disinclined to exercise
People who are unhealthy and/or very overweight typically find it a lot harder to get to the gym and put in a heavy workout than people who are lean and healthy. This isn’t surprising, seeing as both ill-health and obesity tend to go hand-in-hand with chronic inflammation (1, 2, 3, 4, 5), as well as other certain other issues that are known to compromise exercise tolerance and physical performance.
A body that’s inflamed doesn’t want to exercise; it wants to rest and take it easy in order to recuperate and re-establish immune homeostasis as quickly as possible. This can’t be done, at least not effectively, under a state of intense physical stress in the form of exercise. Hence, it’s not surprising that obese individuals, whose swelled-up adipose tissue is a major source of inflammation, often find the thought of exercising very off-putting. Nor is it surprising that sick people often spend a lot of time in bed.
Chronic inflammation leads to fatigue (3, 6, 7), which then leads to inactivity. Not only that, but inflammation also causes various other changes in how the organism functions, some of which may affect the organism’s desire and ability to move. Among other things, it’s accompanied by reduced libido and moody feelings; responses that are known to serve a Darwinian purpose.
The problem we have today is that we are surrounded by proinflammatory agents that the human body has little to no evolutionary experience in dealing with, such as highly processed foods and drugs. Our bodies ultimately respond in a somewhat similar manner to these agents as to the proinflammatory agents that have been a threat to human survival for a long time (e.g., pathogens); hence, it’s not surprising that a lot of contemporary humans are depressed, tired, and have low sex drive.
Laziness: A simplistic explanation of a complicated issue
With these things in mind, it immediately becomes clear that the widespread practice of labeling people (in particular very overweight people) who are disinclined to exercise as sloths and telling them that they simply have to get off their lazy asses and into the gym is neither warranted nor conducive. Will-power and discipline certainly play a role up in all of this; however, we have to acknowledge that other factors are at play as well.
Simply telling someone who loathes exercise that he or she has to stop being so lazy probably won’t do that much good. In order to actually help that person, we have to address the underlying problems that cause him or her to feel like the gym is a torture chamber. This is most likely going to involve interventions aimed at reducing inflammation.
Whenever I start working with a new client whose health and energy levels are less than optimal, I try to deal with the issues that underlie those problems before I tell him or her to get under the squat bar. I’ll likely have him/her engage in some type of physical activity from the very start, but I’ll keep it at a minimum, so as to not slow down the client on his journey towards better health.
Health status is an important determinant of exercise inclination and tolerance. Unhealthy people not only tolerate less exercise than healthy folks, but they also tend to be much less inclined to get off the couch and into the gym. This is partly because ill-health is typically accompanied by inflammation, which sets the stage for fatigue and a bodily predisposition to favor rest over movement.
In other words, the next time you see or talk to an overweight, unhealthy person who clearly finds little or no joy in exercising, don’t be so quick to judge him. It may certainly be that he could benefit from a “kick in the butt”; however, most likely, he could benefit even more from some helpful advice that he could use to boost his general health, and consequently also his energy levels and desire to exercise.