New research finds that people who think they are less active than others in a similar age bracket die younger than those who believe they are more active—even if their actual activity levels are similar.
“Our findings fall in line with a growing body of research suggesting that our mindsets—in this case, beliefs about how much exercise we are getting relative to others—can play a crucial role in our health,” says Alia Crum, assistant professor of psychology at Stanford University.
For the study in Health Psychology, researchers analyzed surveys from more than 60,000 US adults from three national data sets. The surveys documented participants’ levels of physical activity, health, and personal background, among other measures. In one of the samples, participants wore an accelerometer to measure their activity over a week.
The researchers were interested in one question in particular: “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”
The researchers then viewed death records from 2011, which was 21 years after the first survey was conducted. Controlling for physical activity and using statistical models that accounted for age, body mass index, chronic illnesses, and other factors, they found that individuals who believed that they were less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die in the follow-up period than individuals who believed that they were more active than their peers.
Stay aware of your movement
In an earlier study, Crum made a group of hotel room attendants aware that the activity they got at work met recommended levels of physical activity. Through this shift in mindsets, the workers, many of whom had previously perceived themselves as inactive, experienced reductions in weight, body fat, and blood pressure, among other positive outcomes.
Those who deem themselves unfit are more likely to remain inactive.
Mindset and perception may have a powerful effect on health because perception can affect motivation, both positively and negatively. People who are made aware of their healthy activity levels—like the hotel room attendants—can build on them and exercise more. Those who deem themselves unfit are more likely to remain inactive, fueling feelings of fear, stress, or depression that negatively affect their health.
The established influence of placebo effects—where patients who think they are getting a treatment experience physiological changes without receiving actual treatment—can also come into play.
In the same way, people who believe they are getting good exercise may experience more physiological benefits from their exercise than those who believe they aren’t getting enough exercise.
“Placebo effects are very robust in medicine. It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well,” Crum says.
Adjust your mindset
The study is correlational in nature so doesn’t prove that perceptions of inactivity cause earlier death. However, other experimental research does suggest a causal nature to the link between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes.
“…it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”
“So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behavior: eat healthier, exercise more, and stress less,” Crum says. “But an important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.”
In fact, a growing volume of research shows that perceptions and mindsets predict health and longevity, for example, in the domains of stress, diet, and obesity.
That our mindsets could have such potent effects on our physiology may seem provocative and unlikely at first glance, but we shouldn’t be surprised by these results considering the “everyday experiences where our beliefs or a simple thought have very palpable and physiological effects,” Crum says.
“In the case of stress, a thought about something going wrong can make us sweat or [become] shaky or increase our heart rate. With sexual arousal, a simple thought or idea can have immediate physical effects. We experience these things regularly, and yet we’re not cataloguing them as something that matters. For whatever reason—dualism or a prioritization of the material—we tend to ignore the fact that our thoughts, mindsets, and expectations are shaping our everyday physiology.”
Many Americans think that vigorous exercise in a gym is the only way to attain a proper activity level. But being mindful of and feeling good about activities you do every day—like taking the stairs, walking or biking to work, or cleaning the house—could be an easy first step for everyone to benefit their health.
“It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Crum says. “In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”