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.

Stanford study seeks to make cycling safer and more comfortable

Image by OpenClipart-Vectors
Image by OpenClipart-Vectors

When I think about bicycle safety, I think of helmets, lights and strategies to share the road with cars.

But physicians have a different perspective — too many hours on a bicycle saddle can compress vital arteries and nerves to cause numbness, pain and sexual dysfunction. This risk is likely affected by the design of the saddle, fit of the bike, riding position, ride duration and a host of other factors.

But there’s a lot that remains unknown. So Michael Eisenberg, MD, an assistant professor of urology at Stanford, is conducting the Stanford CYCling and Lower Effects (CYCLE) study to hone in on the factors affecting the comfort and safety of cycling. He’s collaborating with Roger Minkow, MD, a Bay Area-based saddle designer and ergonomic consultant.

The researchers are inviting volunteers to answer a brief online survey about their bicycling habits, equipment and health. I recently reached out to Eisenberg to learn more.

What inspired you to conduct the CYCLE study?

“About 20 years ago, several studies demonstrated an association between cycling, erectile dysfunction and even infertility. Many of these health issues can be reversed if caught early, but they can become permanent over time. Since then, the bicycle industry has undergone a major redesign of equipment to try to mitigate the risk. And it’s been years since a large study has been conducted to understand the current prevalence of sexual dysfunction in riders and to understand if there are cycling related factors — such as duration of riding and saddle design — that are contributing.

Cycling is quite popular in this area and I have several patients who have come in over the years complaining of genital pain, numbness or performance issues. Recently, the saddle designer Roger Minkow reached out to me about the topic. We created and initiated the CYCLE study in October 2016 to help understand the current state of cycling on pelvic and sexual health for male and female riders. We’re very excited about the study and hope it will help make the sport safer and more comfortable.”

How can cyclists participate?

“Cyclists participate in the study by completing a brief online survey that takes about 15 minutes. In the survey, we obtain a comprehensive look at the cycling habits of men and women, including the type of riding they do, their intensity level and details about their equipment. We then ask participants about their overall health — such as their weight, body measurements and basic medical history. Finally, we ask validated questions related to sexual function and how it corresponds to their riding habits.

Nearly 1500 people have participated in the study so far. There are so many different types of cyclists and equipment in common use. In order for us to effectively compare these, we need about 8500 more participants.”

Can you give an example of how you treat a cycling-related health problem?

“I recently saw a man with persistent penile numbness after several long bike rides. We reviewed risk factors and pelvic anatomy related to his condition. We then discussed certain cycle practices he can modify to allow him to be able to cycle as much as he’d like without the symptoms, and these modified practices have worked well.

In generally, cyclists really love to ride so my goal is not to tell them to stop. I look at a patient’s equipment, body position, saddle design, riding habits, and when symptoms occur — to come up with a personalized strategy for that rider. In select cases, I even prescribe some medications to help circulation.”

Do you cycle?

“Yes, I cycle on the road for both pleasure and exercise. We live in a beautiful area. One of my favorite rides is around my neighborhood along Foothill Expressway and Junipero Serra Boulevard.”

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

Resolution got you down? Stanford expert recommends “everything in moderation”

Photo by congerdesign
Photo by congerdesign

I don’t usually make New Year’s resolutions, but this year is the exception. My life has gotten too sedentary as a freelance writer who works at home. Like most Americans, I need to exercise more and eat healthier. It’s time to stop the holiday binge eating.

So I welcomed the good advice of Marily Oppezzo, PhD, a registered dietician and postdoctoral fellow at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who specializes in helping people improve their health and well-being. In a recent Stanford BeWell article, she provides guidance to those hoping to make healthier lifestyle choices.

Oppezzo recommends that we stop classifying foods as sinful or good. “While some decisions are arguably healthier than others, we certainly don’t need to get our character and sense of self involved, a mind game that sets health up as binary, rather than a spectrum,” she says in the article. This all-or-nothing thinking, she argues, can result in binge eating — eating one “bad” cookie can lead to eating a whole bag, since you’re already “off the wagon.”

Instead, she says it is better to relish the taste of your favorite food without “pouring guilt all over it,” because you’re more likely to be satisfied and eat less of it.

If you make only one small dietary change, she suggests that you eat more vegetables. “Find one vegetable you love that is quick and easy for you to prepare and eat — and even defrosting frozen spinach to add to a soup or mixing in pre-packaged riced cauliflower … counts! Bring your veggie to work, and add [it] to three lunches next week,” says Oppezzo.

In terms of exercise, she said she thinks walking is particularly underrated. Walking can help your joints, improve your cognitive and creative thinking, reduce your stress level and provide a way to socialize with friends, she said.

However, it is important to be realistic when setting your health goals for this year — and tailor your plan to fit your personal likes and limitations. “In fact, it is important to weigh the factors of culture, individual circumstance, and motivational readiness when advising any (very young to very old) age segment of the population,” Oppezzo said.

And a parting word of wisdom? “’Everything in moderation’ turns out to be so true!,” Oppezzo said.

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

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