And, in 5 Ways to THINK Yourself Skinny: The Harvard Study That'll Shock You, I show that it can even help you lose weight – just by thinking! You don’t have to change anything else about your behavior. Here’s how:
In 2010, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer had a crazy idea: that exercise and health outcomes could be affected by your mindset. To test it, she divided 84 female room attendants (hotel maids) from seven different hotels into one of two groups.
In a study about “health and happiness in the workplace,” the informed group received information about the benefits of exercise – and were informed that their housekeeping work satisfied the CDC’s recommendations for an active lifestyle (at least 30 minutes of physical exercise per day). They were told that exercise doesn’t have to be hard or painful to be good for you – that it’s simply a matter of moving your muscles and burning calories. They also learned specific details about average calorie expenditure for different activities, e.g.:
- Vacuuming for 15 minutes burns 50 calories
- Cleaning bathrooms for 15 minutes burns 60 calories
And, therefore, these women were clearly meeting – even exceeding! – the Surgeon General’s recommendations.
The control group received only the health information (benefits of exercise, CDC recommendations, etc.). At the conclusion of the study, they received the information about exercise and housekeeping.
All participants completed a pre- and post-study questionnaire of self-reported exercise, substance use and diet. Then the experimenters measured their:
- Body fat percentage
- Body mass index (BMI)
- Waist-to-Hip ratio (WHR)
- Blood pressure (BP)
What happened next shocked the world of psychology:
There was no behavior change in either group. But! Four weeks after the intervention, the women in the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. AND! Their weight, body fat percentage, BMI, WHR and BP all decreased.
Mindfulness. And, perhaps, the placebo effect. Which totally makes sense, right?
After all, studies have shown that perceived health is a better predictor of mortality than actual health (Kaplan and Camacho, 1983). Studies have shown that people who do an exercise program they believe was designed to improve psychological well-being show greater boosts in self-esteem than people who do the same exercise program without that information – even though both groups showed similar fitness gains (Desharnais, Jobin, Cote, Levesque & Godin, 1993).
1. That the benefits of exercise are partly due to the placebo effect -- and that's okay! I mean, if your health and fitness are improving, who cares if it's because of the actual exercise you did, or the way you thought about said exercise?
2. There is a very real connection between your mind and your body. Mindfulness can mediate the connection between exercise and health -- and you could be getting more out of the activities and exercises you're already doing if you thought more carefully about what you're doing.
So... time for an action plan? Here are a few suggestions to get you started:
1. Put down your phone. It makes you less mindful, less cool, less likely to make new friends, and more likely to get into a horrible accident (did you know that thousands of people visited the ER last year for "texting-while-walking" incidents?).
2. Focus on your posture! I'm not going to be one of those dicks who tries to tell you how to stand. I'm just saying, Think about it. As I realized recently during a tai chi class I attended (I probably won't be going back -- tai chi kind of violates my principle of practicing things like you're going to do them), good posture is hard work! Think about your posture. Think about all those tiny muscles that keep your back straight. Think about how you’re keeping your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and (if you’re standing) your hips over your knees.
3. Focus on your walking. Think about squeezing your glutes as you walk – what does it feel like? Pay attention to the grade – when you walk uphill, you work your glutes and calves extra hard. But going downhill is a challenge, too! In order to cushion your knees from impact and keep your speed under control, you must activate your hamstrings with each step. (If you tend to plop and make a lot of noise when you walk downhill, you could probably work on that hamstring activation -- and try to absorb some of the impact with your leading quad. Your knees will thank you.)
4. Next time you do any kind of housework, think about the awesome women inLanger’s famous study. (Also, check out her book, which talks about how to slow and/or reverse aging.