Mindset about personal activity correlated with lifespan, new Stanford research shows

Photo by Paul Hansa

The mind is a powerful thing — a simple thought can have an immediate physiological effect. For instance, just thinking about something stressful can make you sweat or increase your heart rate.

Now, Stanford researchers have found that mindsets about exercise can influence health and longevity. Namely, people that think they are less active than their peers tend to have shorter life spans, even if their activity levels are similar.

“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,” said Alia Crum, PhD, an assistant professor of psychology at Stanford, in a recent Stanford news release.

As outlined in a paper in Health Psychology, the researchers analyzed surveys from more than 61,000 U.S. adults from three national databases, which documented participants’ health, physical activity levels and personal demographics. The research team focused on the question: “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”

Using statistical models to control for factors like physical activity, age, body mass index and chronic illnesses, they then correlated the results with death records. The researchers found that people who thought they were less active than their peers were up to 71 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period (of up to 21 years) than those who perceived themselves as more active — even when both groups had similar activity levels.

A possible explanation suggested by the researchers is that perception can positively or negatively affect motivation. People who see themselves as unfit are more likely to remain inactive, which then increases their feelings of stress and depression to reinforce the negative cycle.

Although the research identifies a correlation between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes, it does not show that perceptions of inactivity cause an earlier death. However, it suggests that Americans should feel good about the healthy activities that they do every day — such as taking the stairs, walking or biking to work, or cleaning the house — instead of only valuing vigorous exercise at a gym, the authors said.

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

This is a reposting of my Scope blog story, courtesy of Stanford School of Medicine.

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