Triumph of Mind

Wouldn’t it be great if you could think yourself to better health? Well, studies show that mind over matter, your attitudes toward exercise and even the placebo effect can all have a positive effect on your fitness levels.

Of course, you can’t just sit on the couch and hope for results, but you can improve your activity outcomes by simply shifting your mindset.

One study, conducted by Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, found that hotel maids – who spend their days being active – improved their health just by thinking of their job as exercise, as opposed to work.

The group of 84 maids was split into two, with one group told that its day-to-day work met the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle, while the control group wasn’t told anything.

In four weeks, those who were given examples of how their work – such as changing bed linens and vacuuming – was actually exercise, lost more weight and body fat, lowered their blood pressure, reduced their waist-to-hip ratio, and improved their body mass index compared with the control group. This was accomplished without any indication that they changed their physical routines over the four-week period.

Meanwhile, Berkeley Wellness, an evidence-based wellness publication from the University of California highlights how your mindset really does matter when it comes to staying healthy.

While a host of factors – from childhood experiences to genetics – play a role in why exercise may come easier to some than others, they list several studies that show your brain plays a major role too.

The article says that someone with a negative mindset about activity is physically able to participate, but believes that exercise is too difficult, embarrassing, painful, exhausting, or time-consuming.

The good news is that you can change that mindset into one that believes exercise is not just something that keeps you healthy, but that is also fun, pleasurable, stress-relieving and sociable. Finding an activity that you enjoy may also help to improve your fitness (as we explored in our previous blog post: Trying to find time to exercise? First figure out what you value.
 
The article lists the following research findings on factors that influence people’s exercise mindset:

Being overweight. Many studies have shown that overweight or obese people tend to have negative thoughts and feelings about exercise, which may be both a cause and result of their weight gain. For instance, a small Chinese study published in 2014 in the International Journal of Obesity found that heavier young women were much more likely to have negative reactions to the idea of exercising than their lighter counterparts. This was seen in their answers on a questionnaire, as well as on functional MRI brain scans done when they looked at images of people exercising or were told to imagine themselves performing the activities.
 
Self-efficacy. In a 2014 study in the Journal of Economic Behavior & Organization, Australian researchers looked at the relationship between personality traits and exercise and other health-related habits. They found that people who perceived they had control over their lives were more likely to exercise and take other healthy steps than those who felt that luck or fate largely dictated their lives.
 
Exercise-friendly genes. A 2013 Dutch study in Behavior Genetics involving more than 5,000 twins and siblings found a strong genetic component to attitudes about exercise.

Unconscious attitudes. A 2010 study from Penn State University found that students who had positive unconscious attitudes about physical activity (as measured by psychological testing) were more active over the course of a week (as measured by a pedometer). Besides leading to more exercise, a positive attitude increased incidental daily activities, such as using stairs instead of the elevator, taking the first available parking spot rather than hunting for one closer to the destination, and just moving around more.
 
We love the idea of getting women moving – whatever that means to them. For many, the first step to getting them there may just start with their mind.


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