‘Exercise’ is mindset as well as activity

Blogging on Peer-Reviewed ResearchAn article last year in Psychological Science by Alia J. Crum and Ellen J. Langer, Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect, laid out an extremely interesting example of ‘top-down’ culturo-psycho-physiological dynamics in the body from my favorite area of research: exercise and sports.  Crum and Langer looked at a group of 84 hotel room keepers.  From the abstract:

Those in the informed condition were told that the work they do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. Examples of how their work was exercise were provided. Subjects in the control group were not given this information. Although actual behavior did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. 

If this were the only finding, there wouldn’t be too much news here.  But the change in understanding of what they were doing also had physical effects on the room attendants, including, in addition to changed impressions, an average weight loss of 2 pounds, decrease in systolic blood pressure of 10 points, and positive effects on body mass and heart rates — in only 4 weeks with NO change in the actual activity level.  Becoming convinced that they were getting enough exercise or engaged in adequate activity to promote health helped their background activity to affect their physiology.  Exercise was not just a physical activity, it was also a state of mind (more accurately, without the ‘state of mind’ activity didn’t have the effects of ‘exercise’).  (This research is also discussed in an article in The New York Times.) 

As the researchers explain, ‘Conventional science assumes that in order for weight to be lost and body fat to be reduced, certain biological and physiological events must also take place.’ They argue that it is clear that ‘mind-set’ affects health: ‘The results of this study provide another example of the power of the placebo effect.’ They call for more research into the efficaciousness of placebos because they are inert, but they do little to move beyond this to talk about how they might work or the implications of ‘placebo’ effects of exercise awareness.

I like lots of things about this research and this article, but I don’t like the term, ‘placebo effect.’  As Crum and Langer explain, their research differs from typical research on ‘placebos’:

This study did not test the placebo effect in the traditional manner, in which expectations are aroused through inert pills or sham procedures. Rather, subjects were actually engaging in a behavior that is clinically proven to have positive effects on the physiological variables measured … To determine if the placebo effect plays a role in the benefits of exercise, this study investigated whether subjects’ mind-set (in this case, their perceived levels of exercise) could inhibit or enhance the health benefits of exercise independently of actual exercise.  

NYT exercise effectsThe ‘effect’ they are describing is not so much a ‘placebo’ (belief in a nonactive agent causing effects) as the opposite; the failure to believe in ‘efficacious’ intervention neutralizes its effect. ‘Exercise’ requires the presence of some psychological component to have the level of effect that is expected.

Interestingly, the health of the room attendants reflected their perceived levels of exercise rather than their actual levels: According to their initial physiological measures, the subjects were at risk with respect to BP [blood pressure], BMI [body mass index], percentage of body fat, and WHR—all important indicators of health.  

That is, the room attendants were getting exercise, but without the awareness, this activity did not seem to have the same effect. In other words, without the psychological awareness or expectation of physiological change for their physical activity, the women’s bodies did not change. The article is written in a kind of ‘either x or y’ rhetoric (either the activity or the mind set caused the effects), but I’d suspect that the relationship is more complex between the two (not even including the possibility of feedback, as impressions affect other behaviour, such as diet or sense of well-being). Because this research is a pretty standard ‘subject v. control group,’ there’s very little space to explore the mechanisms are potential intermediate effects.

On a more cultural level, believing in the category of ‘exercise,’ and classifying one’s activities as ‘exercise’ may influence its effect upon the subject’s body. Thinking that one’s activity is ‘exercise’ is not just an individual psychological effect but also a cultural complex: the category of ‘exercise’ has to exist and a particular activity has to come to be classified in that category.

Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer.  2007. Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect.  Psychological Science 18(2): 165–171. 

Published by


Trained as a cultural anthropologist at the University of Chicago, I have gone on to do fieldwork in Brazil and the United States. I have written one book, Learning Capoeira: Lessons in Cunning from an Afro-Brazilian Art (Oxford, 2005). I have also co-authored and co-edited several, including, with Dr. Daniel Lende, The Encultured Brain: An Introduction to Neuroanthropology (MIT, 2012), and with Dr. Melissa Fisher, Frontiers of Capital: Ethnographic Reflections on the New Economy (Duke, 2006). My research interests include neuroanthropology, psychological anthropology, sport, dance, human rights, neuroscience, phenomenology, economic anthropology, and just about anything else that catches my attention.

3 thoughts on “‘Exercise’ is mindset as well as activity

  1. This research still blows my mind (though, unfortunately, it does nothing for my gut) after I read about it in that Times article. I still don’t quite know how to make sense of it. As you say, what’s the mechanism or process? Why the heck do they burn more calories simply by being aware that what they did qualified as “exercise”? Did they fold the sheets harder? Did their basal metabolic rate go up because suddenly they felt like they were doing exercise, and thus mentally, had to be prepared for that, which had a cascade-effect down on the body’s handling of energy? Or is it simply being “mindful”, which somehow burns more energy in itself, or perhaps reduces stress, thus lowering blood pressure but also taking cravings away, so snacks were avoided during breaks?

  2. Did they control for extra-curriculars? We know from other mindset studies how expectations on a person will influence them to perform better or worse, so I do wonder if the expection of being fit (instead of ‘exhausted’) after a day of room-cleaning induced the participants to become more active in their off-hours; the sudden improvement may be due not to them doing the same work, but by the sudden increase in other activities deemed now doable because they believe they are, ‘logically’ more fit to do them.

    BTW, has psychology no professional sense of ethics in withholding or falsifying information given to its test subjects?

  3. The results don’t surprise me, I hope this is a explanation of positive psychotherapy outcome where every professional psychotherapist is wondering about what did the client helped to bring some changes into his life. As psychotherapy outcome research did show there is a substantial percentage of non-specific factors to be responsible for positive outcome. Perhaps this ‘mindset’ is a fruitfull way to explain it.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s