Thinking Yourself Unfit

If two people exercise the same amount but one person perceives themselves as less fit, does it matter?

A few years ago, I’d probably have said no. But science is beginning to reveal some interesting links between our mindset and health. In particular, that one’s perception of their position makes a difference.

Take a recent study out of Stanford. The researchers analyzed three nationally representative samples, with a total sample size of 61,141 U.S. adults. If you’re not a research buff, let me just stress that this is a huge dataset and the longitudinal nature means that we can begin to analyze causality rather than just mere association.

The researchers analyzed data over 21 years in order to determine the relationship between perceived level of physical activity and mortality.

The results?

Astoundingly, one’s perception of their level of physical activity relative to peers mattered. Specifically, people who thought they weren’t engaging in as much exercise as their peers died younger – they were up to 71% more likely to die in the follow-up period – than those who perceived themselves as more active. This held up even if they did the same amount of exercise and after adjusting for a variety of factors that could have explained these results.

Was this a fluke?

Well, it was evident across all three datasets so the results are definitely something to consider.

So what might explain these findings?

A few things come to mind. One is that if you are thinking about yourself as ‘less-than’, it might be triggering a stress response, which is known to have deleterious effects on health.

Another interesting option is the idea of the ‘nocebo’ effect. You’ve probably heard of the placebo effect. This is the opposite, where if you don’t expect much out of a treatment, the physiological effect of it is reduced. In this case, even if someone were as active as a peer, if they didn’t expect much out of their activity, then their body’s response may have been less than it would’ve been otherwise.

Our minds may be dictating our physiology more than we thought previously.

Now I know that this is only one study, but times are changing. We are collectively moving away from thinking about people as boxed units, or a collection of independent parts that have no influence on one another. We have begun to see that the mind-body connection is not just an abstract thought of a hippy-ed up yogi, but something that grounded in science. Something that might provide us with the keys to better preventive care and treatment options.

I, for one, welcome this transition.

Our relationship to the person we see in the mirror, our thoughts of our role in society and self-worth, has an impact on our physical health. It has an impact on the choices we make every day. It can be the determining factor in the paths we choose to take in life.

It can be what makes the difference between a healthy life and a not-so-healthy one.

So value what you’re doing. Raise your expectations of the healthy choices you make every day. Don’t undercut the hard work you’re doing to make yourself better.

Amanda

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