We all know that not exercising regularly is bad for our health. But it turns out that how much you think you are exercising can impact your health, too.
A study from the journal of Health Psychology found that people who thought they were exercising less than their peers – even if they had the exact same activity levels – had a greater chance of dying younger.
The study seems to suggest that the health benefits of exercise may not just come from physical exertion itself, but also from the mental boost you get from thinking you are a fit person.
It’s not just about endorphins, then (though they’re certainly a nice bonus); but rather, how you think and feel about your own personal fitness level compared to other people’s after you’ve put in a few good sweat sessions.
Basically, people who feel like they’re slacking on their fitness won’t get the same benefits from their workouts as gym rats who believe in the #SwoleLife.
Lead study author Octavia Zahrt, a Stanford PhD student in organizational behavior, says she based her research on her own personal experience. Coming from Germany, she felt very good about her activity levels – she biked to work and went to the gym once a week.
But once she moved to California, she says, she was suddenly surrounded by people who exercise all the time.
“Compared to them I felt really inactive, and I developed what I know now was a really negative mindset about my physical activity,” she tells Health Magazine.
Zahrt and her co-author Alicia Crum set off to study the effect of perceived fitness level and attitude on physical health. They analyzed 61,141 adults between 1990 and 2006, who were asked about their level of activity each week. They were also asked, “Would you say that you are more physically active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”
Controlling for factors such as age, demographics and general health, the researchers found that people who believed they were less active than their peers were 71 per cent more likely to die during the study’s follow-up period, from 2006 to 2011.
Not only that, but they found that people’s perceptions about their fitness levels often weren’t based in reality. Meaning, people were more likely to base their level of activity on how much they thought people around them were exercising, rather than on how physically active they actually were.
“It can be easy to compare how much exercise we get with the people around us, as opposed to what’s recommended for everyone,” says Zahrt. “Plus, a lot of people think that exercise has to mean running or going to the gym, and they don’t give themselves credit for all of the other activity they do — cleaning their house, walking to the store, carrying their kids, those sorts of things.”
The study suggests that people who underestimate their own activity are unknowingly doing their health a great disservice. On the flip-side, those who feel good about their fitness levels may get as much benefit from their positive attitude as they do from exercising itself.
The idea that there’s a “placebo effect” of exercise is nothing new. Co-author Crum, who is an assistant professor of psychology and director of Stanford’s Mind and Body Lab first studied this phenomenon back in 2007.
“It can be easy to compare how much exercise we get with the people around us.”
Yet the ways in which our mental state affects us physically is nonetheless often overlooked.
“What’s surprising to me is how robust the accumulated evidence is on the power of mindset in shaping our health,” says Crum, “and yet people are still so shocked when they hear results like these.”
Of course, this isn’t an excuse to stop working out, while also believing you’re a fitness fanatic. (Placebo effect can only take you so far, guys.)
“This is not an excuse to just stop doing anything but believe you’re doing everything,” she says. “It’s a reminder that, yes, you should work to get active in your life — but you should also be mindful of those negative thoughts that can creep in and the effects they might have.”
“Just because you didn’t get to that Spin class or that fancy new fitness class, doesn’t mean you’re not as healthy as those who do,” Crum adds.
“If we can change our perceptions to view all activity as good activity,” concludes Zahrt, “we think that could be a first and really important step to improving our health.”