Exercising and staying fit is, of course, important for living a long and healthy life. However, almost 1 in 10 premature deaths worldwide are attributed to physical inactivity.
In the United States, around 80 percent of adults do not meet the recommended levels of exercise, despite the efforts of media, school, and workplace programs.
Although the struggle to get people moving is ongoing, over recent years, another important factor has come to the fore: our perception of our own activity levels.
Think yourself fit
Our perceived activity levels may not reflect our actual activity levels. In fact, study author Octavia Zahrt, Ph.D., says, “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.”
A study conducted in 2007 by Dr. Alia Crum (also involved in the present research), of Stanford University in California, illustrates this surprising psychological interaction.
That study concentrated on 87 hotel room attendants working across seven hotels. Each of the participants routinely met exercise guidelines, purely through the work that they carried out each day at their respective hotel.
The researchers conducted a 20-minute intervention: in a nutshell, they informed an experimental group of workers that they were all were meeting their daily exercise needs through their physical jobs, explaining the benefits of such an active lifestyle. A control group of hotel workers were given information about recommended exercise levels but were not informed that they routinely met the required physical activity levels.
After 4 weeks, when the two groups were compared, the experimental group showed a decreasein blood pressure, weight, body fat, body mass index (BMI), and waist-to-hip ratio.
These results seem nothing short of incredible: a psychological intervention with the ability to change physiology for the better.
Retesting the power of the mind
Drs. Zahrt and Crum recently set out to investigate this relationship in a larger sample, and their results are published this week in the journal Health Psychology.
They took data from three nationally representative samples of U.S. adults, with a total sample size of 61,141. These individuals were surveyed from 1990 to 2006, and mortality data were collected in 2011. The researchers had access to detailed medical records and information about disabilities, mental health, BMI, gender, age, education levels, and race.
Participants were given questionnaires that included a range of questions about fitness and activity levels. Information was collated about the types of activities they had recently taken part in, as well as their duration and intensity. For one phase of the data collection, participants wore an accelerometer that measured their actual levels of activity.
Importantly, the questionnaires gauged how physically active the individuals thought they were with the question, “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?” They also rated themselves on a general health scale from 1 (excellent) to 5 (poor).
As suspected, the participants’ perception of their own activity levels did not correspond to their actual activity levels, and the effect of this was nothing short of startling.
Individuals who thought they were less active than their peers were 71 percent more likely to die during the study follow-up period than those who believed that they were more active. This effect remained significant even after controlling for factors including their actual levels of exercise, chronic illness, and age.
“Most people know that not exercising enough is bad for your health. But, most people do not know that thinking you are not exercising enough can also harm your health.”