Differences in neural activation to depictions of physical exercise and sedentary activity: an fMRI study of overweight and lean Chinese women

Int J Obes (Lond). 2014 Sep;38(9):1180-5. doi: 10.1038/ijo.2013.245. Epub 2013 Dec 24.


Objective: Neuroimaging studies have documented differences in neural responses to food cues in obese versus lean samples but little is known about weight status differences in responsiveness to other key features of obesogenic environments, particularly cues reflecting physical activity. To address this gap, patterns of activation related to visual depictions of sedentary activities and vigorous physical exercise were assessed in overweight (O-W) and average weight (A-W) samples via functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI).

Methods: Thirteen O-W and 13 A-W Chinese women were instructed to imagine engaging in 90 physical exercise activities and 90 sedentary activities and to watch 90 landscape images presented during three runs of an fMRI scan within a cross-sectional design.

Results: Behavioral results indicated O-W women endorsed more negative attitudes toward physical activity than A-W did. Imaging analyses indicated that body mass index had a significant negative association with activation of the right putamen and a positive correlation with activation in the right medial frontal gyrus, specifically Brodmann Area 10 in the exercise-sedentary image contrast condition. For the sedentary-control contrast, significantly less activation in an insula area related to negative affect was observed for the O-W group. Finally, for the exercise-control contrast, O-W women also displayed comparatively weaker activation in a cingulate gyrus area implicated in kinesthetic memory of body movements and the re-experiencing real events.

Conclusion: Together, results supported contentions that exposure to depictions of physical exercise corresponds to reduced activation of reward centers and heightened activation in regions associated with negative affect regulation among O-W women compared with leaner peers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Adult
  • Affect
  • Attitude to Health
  • Body Weight
  • Cerebral Cortex / physiology*
  • China / epidemiology
  • Cross-Sectional Studies
  • Cues
  • Exercise / psychology*
  • Female
  • Gyrus Cinguli / physiology
  • Health Behavior*
  • Humans
  • Internal-External Control
  • Magnetic Resonance Imaging*
  • Neuroimaging
  • Overweight / psychology*
  • Prefrontal Cortex / physiology
  • Putamen / physiology
  • Reward
  • Sedentary Behavior*
  • Thinness / psychology*