In the study, 162 adults who had never counted steps before wore tracking watches for four weeks. One group was given a watch that wildly inflated step counts — instead of averaging 7,000 steps, they thought they walked 9,800. Another less-fortunate group wore a watch that deflated step counts, lowering them by about 40 percent, to around 4,000 a day.
And two groups wore watches that told the truth — they were walking about 7,000 steps a day. But some of the participants also watched videos about the power of mind-sets and how they can influence our health.
These volunteers were asked to consider how much they had moved in the past week, including during activities they might disregard as exercise, such as housework or walking to the mailbox, ponder how those activities could be benefiting their health and “celebrate” themselves for how active they had been. They were directed to repeat these reflections every week during the study.
The benefits of an exercise mind-set
At the end of the study, those who had been told correctly that they walked about 7,000 steps a day reported better moods and higher self-esteem. When they started counting steps, they also began eating better, consuming fewer high-fat foods and more produce. And their aerobic fitness had risen slightly, although they weren’t exercising more.
The greatest change, though, was in their “Activity Adequacy Mind-set” score, a specialized questionnaire that measured whether they felt they got enough exercise. They felt “that their physical activity level was more adequate and healthier than they had previously believed,” the scientists wrote.
Those volunteers who had gotten accurate counts and also been taught about mind-sets showed even greater gains in their emotional well-being and sense of being physically capable. Their Activity Adequacy Mind-set scores also were highest.
But people who thought they had taken only 4,000 steps a day seemed, well, sadder now. They showed slightly lower self-esteem, darker moods, poorer eating habits, and small increases in their resting heart rates and blood pressure, indicating somewhat worsening health, although their step counts, objectively, were the same as everyone else’s.
Interestingly, the group that had been given inflated steps responded almost identically to those receiving accurate counts. The researchers suspect this signifies that many of us see little subjective difference between 7,000 and 9,000-ish steps, but plenty of difference between 7,000 and 4,000.
The study shows that our mind-sets about our exercise habits “can change our motivation and goals,” even if those mind-sets don’t reflect reality, said Alia Crum, an associate professor of psychology and director of the Mind & Body Lab at Stanford University and the senior author of the new study. “They can even change us physically.”
When hotel workers find out they are fit
The idea that an exercise mind-set can influence physical health first gained widespread attention after Crum published a now-famous 2007 study of 84 female hotel-room attendants.
The attendants uniformly considered themselves inactive and worried that their lack of exercise was undermining their health.
But Crum and her colleagues pointed out to half of the women that they were quite active. Their work activities — vacuuming, changing sheets, lifting, scrubbing — counted as exercise. The women exceeded the formal exercise guidelines that suggest half an hour of exercise a day.
A month later, those attendants’ body weights, body fat and blood pressures had all dropped, even though nothing in their lives had changed, except their mind-sets. They didn’t change their daily activities, but they had changed their views about whether they were being active enough.
Since then, Crum and her collaborators found in another study that men and women who considered themselves less active than other people their age were at much higher risk of premature death than people who confidently believed they worked out more than others their age, whether those beliefs were accurate or not.
That research and the new study suggest that our mind-sets about our exercise and health can become self-fulfilling, said Octavia Hedwig Zahrt, a behavioral scientist who received her PhD from Stanford and led the longevity research. If we believe we are too inactive for our own good, our health and well-being can suffer, no matter how active we actually are.
If, on the other hand, we begin to think of ourselves as active people — who exercise when we change the sheets or walk down the hall — our moods, health and even our fitness can rise.
How to change your mind-set
So how can we revamp and leverage our mind-sets about moving?
Start by thinking about and writing down how you spent the past few days, Zahrt said. Did you formally exercise? How much? More important, how often did you stroll the halls, lift, and swing a child, vacuum, plant in the garden, chase the dog, or take the stairs? Try to be precise and comprehensive about every activity. If you know your step counts, write them down. Add up the numbers.
Now, contemplate how much exercise you actually completed. Does it feel like enough to improve your health, to help you avoid disease, to keep you content?
The answer is yours and yours alone, Zahrt said. What feels adequate for one person may be too little — or dauntingly too much — for another. For now, try not to compare your steps or other activities to those of anyone else, including your loved ones, friends or random TikTokkers.
Instead, celebrate how active you have discovered yourself to be, Zahrt said.
Bear in mind, too, that while mind-sets matter, the effects are small. The changes in the study groups’ health and sense of well-being were slight, Crum pointed out.
But they occurred despite people not changing how much they moved, only their mind-sets.
If, after considering your recent activities, you feel you should be more active, look for easy ways to incorporate more movement into your day. Take the stairs. Walk to a restaurant at lunch, instead of ordering in. Bike to work. Come over and vacuum my home. Then celebrate yourself some more for how active you’ve become.
Do you have a fitness question? Email [email protected] and we may answer your question in a future column.
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