New participants to my classes may be a tad dismayed to learn in their one hour devoted to exercise, they’re asked to do things called, “Unload the Dishwasher,” “Switch Out the Laundry,” and “Pick Up the Baby.”
It’s not that I don’t know technical “exercise” terms. It’s that I want my clients to think less in terms of exercise being a discrete, hour-long activity that they do five times a week and more in terms of something that they can do all day, every day.
More movement. Less “exercise.”
(Sometimes I hashtag it : #paradigmshift or #movementmatters.)
So, I was intrigued to hear a recent interview with Dr. Ellen Langer, a Harvard University social psychologist who has been studying mindlessness and mindfulness for more than three decades.
In 2007 she and a colleague published a study “Mind-set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect*.” (Here’s the academic citation: Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 18, no. 2:165-171.) They investigated the role that the placebo effect plays in exercise:
In the study we report here, we investigated the role of the placebo effect (the moderating role of mind-set) in the relationship between exercise and health. We hypothesized that the placebo effect plays a role in the health benefits of exercise: that one’s mind-set mediates the connection between exercise and one’s health. If this hypothesis is true, increasing perceived exercise, independent of actual exercise, would be expected to result in subsequent health benefits (a placebo effect).
In brief summary, here’s what they did:
- Using scientifically rigorous methods (which I won’t detail but about which you can read here) they compared two groups of hotel “room attendants,” an experimental group and the control group.
- Why hotel room attendants? Because their everyday jobs already met or exceeded the Surgeon General’s guidelines for an accumulated minimum of thirty minutes per day of exercise.
- Both groups were extensively questioned about their habits outside of work, at work, lifestyles, etc. and various biometric measures were taken. One key element of the survey regarded the subjects’ perception of how much exercise they regularly got.
- After the surveys and measures were completed, the experimental group was given “training” on how their everyday jobs constitute exercise that satisfied the Surgeon General’s recommended minimum. This training included both written and verbal instruction, was presented in English and Spanish, and even detailed how specific activities that they did daily (i.e., lifting) were considered “exercise.”
- The control group did not receive this training.
- After four weeks, the researchers surveyed and measured the subjects again and investigators used statistical and analytical methods to draw conclusions about the data.
So, check this out:
After only 4 weeks of knowing that their work is good exercise, the subjects in the informed group lost an average of 2 pounds,6 lowered their systolic BP by 10 points,7 and were significantly healthier as measured by body-fat percentage, BMI, and WHR. These were small but meaningful changes given the state of health the subjects were in, especially considering that the change occurred in just 4 weeks. All of these changes were significantly greater than the changes in the control group. These results support our hypothesis that increasing perceived exercise independently of actual exercise results in subsequent physiological improvements.p. 170
To what do the researchers attribute this remarkable finding?
Well, first let me tell you my reaction.
I believed, and I still do, that while the quantity and broad-stroke quality of the subjects’ behaviors may not have changed, it is likely that the way that they conducted themselves did change subtly. My hunch is that instead of going through the motions, they were more purposeful in their work. They probably lifted, carried, or moved themselves a bit more out of the belief that what they were doing mattered and that it was good. That’s not something that would necessarily have been observable even if the subjects had been watched by the researchers while they worked, which they were not.
The researchers addressed this hunch of mine (emphasis added is mine):
Of course, it is possible that the room attendants actually did change their behavior—actually did cut back on calories, improve the quality of the food they ate, or work harder or more energetically—but did not report such changes. However, previous research has found it very difficult to change behavior of this sort (Deutschman, 2005). Thus, even if these behavioral changes did occur as a result of the intervention, that too would make these results interesting.p. 170
In summary, the data collected in this study, coupled with previous research indicating the difficulty of changing behavior, make it unlikely that the relationship between mind-set and improvements in health was mediated by a change in behavior. In either case, whether the change in physiological health was brought about directly or indirectly, it is clear that health is significantly affected by mind-set.p. 170
* I’d like to take a moment to praise Harvard University for its DASH / Digital Access to Scholarship at Harvard program which made this article available to me (and you) for free online. Because I am no longer in the academic world, I don’t have access to most journals containing the studies that fascinate me, which is a barrier to my ability to critically assess the information I learn via the media or through abstract. I hope more institutions will adopt a DASH-inspired mentality.