STANFORD, Calif. — The mere thought that you’re not working out enough can cut short your lifespan, a new study finds.
Researchers at Stanford University looked at data samples from three nationally representative surveys with over 61,000 American adults, which contained info on weight, activity levels, whether one smoked, and one’s assessment of whether they exercised at similar rates to same-aged peers.
“Individuals who thought they were less active than other people their age were more likely to die, regardless of health status, body mass index, and so on,” says Alia Crum, one of the study’s lead authors in an NPR interview.
To be clear, even when all other variables were constant among a group, those who believed they were lagging behind in physical activity experienced higher rates of mortality.
“Most people know that not exercising enough is bad for your health,” says co-author Octavia Zahrt, a doctoral candidate at the Stanford University Graduate School of Business, in a press release. “But most people do not know that thinking you are not exercising enough can also harm your health.”
This observation was found by examining the respondents over a 21-year period following their initial responses. One sample showed that this belief alone resulted in an astounding 71 percent increase in mortality risk.
The researchers believe that perhaps the biggest phenomenon underlying this finding is the placebo effect. For example, “the belief you’re getting a pain medication can activate endogenous opiates in the brain,” Crum explains.
The power of the mind cannot be underestimated, particularly when it comes to our well-being.
In addition, feeling like you’re behind can zap your motivation to exercise, Zahrt says, particularly over time. She adds that where you live and how often your friends work out could also affect this mindset.
“Our perceptions about how much exercise we are getting and whether or not we think that exercise is adequate are influenced by many factors other than how much exercise we are actually getting,” says Zahrt. “For example, if you live in an area where most of your peers are really fit, you might perceive yourself as relatively inactive, even though your exercise may be sufficient. Or if you believe that only running or working out at the gym count as real exercise, you may overlook the exercise you are getting at work or at home cleaning and carrying kids around.”
Still, the researchers haven’t been able to accurately pinpoint a specific cause, which may take further inquiry.
This study implies that messaging about exercise is vital, and could play a huge role in one’s long-term health. In other words, different people need different amounts of exercise, so comparison is, by and large, futile.
“Many Americans think that the only healthy physical activity is vigorous exercise in a gym or on a track,” says Crum. “Our research suggests that perceiving everyday activities as good exercise is almost as important as doing the activities in the first place. In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important not only to adopt healthy behaviors but also healthy thoughts.”
The study’s findings were published in the journal Health Psychology.