A recent investigation into the ways in which exercise affects longevity shows that the amount of exercise you do and its intensity may not be the most important factor in helping you live longer.
Instead, in a finding that surprises me, the researchers found that your attitude toward exercise has an outsized effect on your chances of extending your life expectancy.
Here’s a full report on this weird result…
In a Stanford study, people who believed they were more active than other people lived longer than those who believed they didn’t exercise much – even when the exercise levels were, in both groups, identical.1
This startling discovery demonstrates that your thoughts and beliefs are a big influence on your health.
Where You See Yourself
“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 researcher Alia Crum, an assistant professor of psychology.
The research, which analyzed the lifestyle habits of around 60,000 people over a period of 21 years, measured physical activity, health, personal backgrounds and other parameters.
The Stanford scientists paid particularly close attention to the query that participants were asked to answer at the outset of the research, “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”
They found that during the 21 years covered by the research, folks who thought they were less active than others were up to 71 percent more likely to die than those who believed they were more active. And that held true even when their beliefs about their exercise were not true.
“Most people know that not exercising enough is bad for your health,” says researcher Octavia Zahrt, a doctoral candidate. “But most people do not know that thinking you are not exercising enough can also harm your health.”
The results of this study parallel the findings of another Stanford study that examined the physical activity and health of hotel room attendants.
In that study, although the hotel room attendants were very physically active while on the job, before the study began they didn’t understand that they were getting a lot of daily exercise just by working. But after the researchers made them aware of the fact that in the course of their occupation they were, in fact, doing plenty of activity, the attendants lost weight, reduced their body fat and even saw their blood pressures come down.2
The factor that improved the health of the hotel workers, say the researchers, was their attitude toward the exercise they were getting every day at work.
The Mindset Effect
The researchers offer several possible theories about how your mindset toward your own exercise can change measurable, physical health markers.
It is possible that if you have a positive perception about how much exercise you do, you may find yourself more motivated in other areas of your life – such as diet and sleep – that produce extra benefits for your health and longevity.
Your attitude may also produce a type of beneficial placebo effect. Because of your beliefs, your body and brain generate the helpful changes you assume you should be getting from your exercise.
“Placebo effects are very robust in medicine,” says Dr. Crum. “It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioral health as well.”
Certainly, other studies that have looked at people’s attitudes toward aging show that if you think you are going to age successfully and stay healthy, you have a better chance of doing so.3
“It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Dr. Crum adds. “In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”
I would observe that if you believe you don’t get enough exercise, or perhaps believe you don’t eat right it’s probably stressful even when it’s not true. These negative attitudes perhaps induce a sort of despair among people whose habits aren’t really all that bad.
Maybe some of these folks are just worrying themselves to death. . .