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Do you think you're lazier than your friends? Well, stop. It's bad for you

The researchers say the importance of mindsets in health needs to be taken more seriously.

The researchers studied data from more than 60,000 people.
The researchers studied data from more than 60,000 people.
Image: Shutterstock/wavebreakmedia

NEW RESEARCH HAS found that merely thinking you are less active than other people your age can have a serious impact on your health – and cause you to die earlier than your peers.

The study suggests that the effects of the belief are so powerful that they can shorten your life even if you are just as active as the people you are negatively comparing yourself to.

“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,” explained Stanford psychology professor Alia Crum, who was one of the researchers in the study.

Crum and her colleague analysed surveys from more than 60,000 American adults dating back over 20 years. They were particularly interested in one question:

Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?

They then viewed death records from 2011, which was 21 years after the first survey was conducted, and found that people who believed that they were less active than others were up to 71% more likely to have died in the follow-up period than people who believed that they were more active than their peers.

The study, which appears in the journal Health Psychology, controlled for physical activity and used statistical models that accounted for age, body mass index, chronic illnesses and other factors.

Possible explanations

The researchers offered some possible explanations for why a person’s mindset and perception could have such powerful effects on health. One is that perceptions can affect motivation, both positively and negatively.

Those who are made aware of their healthy activity levels can build on them and exercise more. Those who deem themselves unfit are more likely to remain inactive, fueling negative feelings about their overall health.

They also cited the placebo effect, where patients who think they are getting treatment experience physiological changes without receiving actual treatment.

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“Placebo effects are very robust in medicine. It is only logical to expect that they would play a role in shaping the benefits of behavioural health as well,” Crum said.

The researchers did note that the study is correlational in nature and thus does not prove that perceptions of inactivity cause earlier death. However, other experimental research has suggested links between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes.

“Healthy thoughts”

“So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behaviour: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less,” Crum said.

But an important variable is being left out of the equation: people’s mindsets about those healthy behaviors.

“It’s time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously,” Crum continued. “In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviors, but also healthy thoughts.”

READ: Train hard, eat well and rest – when the results don’t add up it’s time to reassess your goals >

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Ceimin Burke

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