Our health and longevity may depend as much on what we think as what we do. A recent study published in Health Psychology proposes that what we believe about our exercise habits may significantly impact our level of fitness, even if our beliefs are not factual. This suggests that changing our thoughts about working out may help improve our health, whether or not we exercise more.
The study was birthed out of research by Alia Crum, who heads Stanford University’s Mind and Body Lab. With her co-author, Crum examined over 80 female hotel housekeepers who believed that they did not exercise much or at all, although most of their work was physical exertion. The researchers informed half of the housekeepers that they were meeting or surpassing national daily exercise guidelines of 30 minutes. When Crum studied the women one month later, the attendants reported that they felt that they were exercising more than previously. Although their routines had not changed, the women had reduced body fat and weight as well as lower blood pressure.
Crum and another co-author, Octavia Zahrt, consulted the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey and the National Health Interview Survey, which comprises health statistics on representative groups throughout the country. The researchers zeroed in on data from over 60,000 participants who responded to questions regarding how they felt about their level of exercise. Next, Crum and Zahrt integrated the samples to information from the National Death Index to ascertain if and when participants passed away.
The scientists discovered a striking interconnection between early deaths of people and their belief that they were not active, even when their data suggested that they were exercising as much as others their age. The risk of premature death was as much as 71 percent higher than for the people who felt (accurately or not) that they got more exercise – even when Crum controlled for factors including tobacco use, socioeconomic status and chronic illnesses.