Imagining Better Health Can Make it So

Credit: jogging photo by AP (Image credit: jogging photo by AP)

You gotta move it to lose it, but how much depends on the sedentary activity of thinking as well as the actual calories burned, a new study finds.

It's how much you think you worked out, not just the vigor of you workouts, that is key, according to the research published in the February issue of the journal Psychological Science.

Placebos, or “sugar pills,” are often used in clinical drug trials to see if the effect of a remedy is due to the actual drug or the individual’s mindset. Researchers at Harvard University wanted to see if a person’s attitude could enhance or inhibit the benefits of exercise independent of an actual workout itself.

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Reaching out to 84 female hotel housekeepers, researchers asked them how much they were working out. The housekeepers reported that they were not getting any exercise despite their strenuous jobs.

The U.S. Surgeon General recommends 30 minutes of daily exercise to maintain a healthy lifestyle.

“This is a group of people who by far surpassed the Surgeon General’s recommendation for the amount of exercise one should get," said psychologist and lead study author Ellen Langer. “Yet our initial belief, and then confirmed by data, was that they were—rather than healthy as one might expect from all this exercise—less healthy than they should be. If they’re getting the exercise why aren’t they healthier?”

Langer and her colleagues wondered if a change in mindset could translate into a change in the health of the housekeepers. 

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The researchers informed 44 of the subjects that the daily work they do is enough exercise to satisfy the Surgeon General’s recommendation for sustaining a healthy routine.  

“They were taught that their work was exercise and were given specifics,” Langer told LiveScience. “For example, changing linens for 15 minutes burns 40 calories, vacuuming for 15 minutes burns 50 calories, cleaning bathrooms for 15 minutes burns 60 calories and so on.”

The other 40 housekeepers were not told the health benefits of their daily tasks.

After four weeks, the informed group had lost an average of two pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10 percent, and reduced their body fat percentage. These changes were higher than the uninformed group.

But for those hoping to maintain a couch potato’s lifestyle and imagine their way to weight loss and healthville, the prognosis is negative.

“Our mindsets are hard to change,” Langer said.  “So if you’re just sitting on the couch and just telling yourself that you’re exercising, you’re not going to believe yourself and so they’ll be no change.”

Sara Goudarzi
Sara Goudarzi is a Brooklyn writer and poet and covers all that piques her curiosity, from cosmology to climate change to the intersection of art and science. Sara holds an M.A. from New York University, Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute, and an M.S. from Rutgers University. She teaches writing at NYU and is at work on a first novel in which literature is garnished with science.