According to a 2016 study published by the Journal of Health Psychology, people who prefer not to spend their time thinking tend to be more physically active than those who do enjoy exercising their brain.
Researchers tracked the physical activity of 60 undergraduate students after dividing them into two groups: those with a high need for cognition (NFC) and those with a low need. The study's authors characterize NFC as "a tendency to engage in and enjoy effortful cognitive endeavors."
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For example, people who enjoy working through challenging puzzles have a high NFC, explains Todd McElroy, a professor at Florida Gulf Coast University and one of the study's authors. Those who prefer doing mundane tasks that do not stimulate the mind, he tells Broadly, have a low NFC.
For one week, the subjects wore a Fitbit-like device that measured their physical movements every 30 seconds. The study yielded approximately 20,000 points of data for each person, McElroy says. When they compared the activity levels, or lack thereof, in the two groups, researchers found the difference was substantial: The group with the low NFC moved significantly more every day during the week than the high NFC group. The weekend readings, however, revealed less of a difference.
After reading the research, it'd be easy to default to the old stereotypes of "dumb jocks" and "smart people always having their head in a book." But the relationship between cognition and physical activity is more complicated than that. As the Independent points out, the need for cognition is not a measure of intelligence: "People with lower IQs can enjoy a contemplative life and a good cognitive challenge, for instance. Similarly, plenty of people with high IQs dislike using their brain in challenging ways."
McElroy says motivation may also play a role in a person's physical activities. For example, people may be engaging in physical activity for longer periods of time to avoid tackling a challenging mental task. Personally, McElroy says, when he's faced with grading a stack of student papers or working on a difficult statistical model, he often finds himself getting up to do chores or going for a walk.
Beyond that, one of the biggest takeaways of the study is how it addresses the negative perception of sitting around. "Just because you seem to be lazy, or what people would qualify as lazy," he says, "you actually might be engaging in some type of higher motivated thought."
Of course, people who are thoughtful and intelligent are often aware of the health risks of a sedentary lifestyle. "They are cognizant of it," McElroy says, "but by the same token, if you're engaged in thinking and thinking activities, you're normally not moving."
A follow-up study that will go more in-depth in what people are actually doing when they are or aren't moving is in the works, McElroy says.