If you’ve ever gone through a diet or made some big lifestyle changes, you know that a lot of the process can be just as mentally taxing as it is physically. Behavior change in itself is comprised of several moving parts, a lot of which could be influenced by the way we choose to think about those very actions and view them.
While our mindset, expectations, and/or beliefs aren’t anything we can tangibly see, they can be very instrumental without us even realizing it. This is attributed to something known as the placebo effect. While placebos are assumed to be used solely in the form of pills or faux treatments, they can also be instilled via providing information and context to the individual, which in turn can impact their perception.
Let’s say you’re aiming to lose weight. Now, if you don’t believe that what you’re doing (aka following a caloric deficit and becoming more active) is beneficial for your health/fitness and thus bringing you towards your goal, are you going to take those changes seriously and get the most out of them? Or even adhere to them for very long? Probably not.
Mindset to the Test
A 2007 study (Crum & Langer) wanted to investigate the role of the placebo effect and moderating one’s mindset in the relationship between exercise and health. This design involved employing a placebo in a nontraditional manner: providing certain information to the subjects in an attempt to influence their mindset, or perception, towards exercise.
Subjects were informed that their daily work requirements (housekeeping, in this case) more than satisfied the CDC’s recommendations for an active lifestyle. The informed workers were presented with material all about caloric expenditure of certain tasks and were told that exercise was more of a matter of moving your muscles and getting active, rather than something that had to be hard. Afterwards, all groups were told about the researchers’ interests in collecting information on their health and went about measuring their physiological markers and providing questionnaires. Alongside this, researchers collected the same measurements and questionnaires from the control group, just without having shared the additional health information to them prior.
In just 4 weeks (which is a very short amount of time in relating to health and fitness) there was quite a meaningful change observed for housekeepers who were informed about their physical activity levels, caloric burn, and where they stood with leading an active lifestyle. Most of the workers had no idea that their work was considered good exercise.
The percentage of informed workers who reported themselves as exercising regularly doubled over the 4-week period. They reported getting higher levels of exercise by week 4, although this is without reporting any increases in activity outside of work. Workload for the subjects did not change during the study either, so this change in reported or perceived exercise activity is likely attributed to the shift in mindset caused by the information presented to the workers.
Physiological measures showed substantial improvements as well! The informed workers lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressures, and were much healthier with markers like BMI, waist-to-hip ratios, and body fat percentages.
Mind Your Mindset
We know the ins and outs of weight change – calorie balance! So, how does our mindset really make an impact with those factors? One assumption we can make is about possible, albeit subconscious, behavior change.
Now behavior change isn’t this simple both on its own and when we take into account the provided data and reports from the workers. Exercise activity during and outside of daily work requirements supposedly didn’t change. The same can be said for nutrition, as workers reported no changes in how much they ate or drank during this time. Caloric intake and caloric expenditure are the two major variables in this equation, and neither of them were reported to have been different. There’s a possibility that workers had subconsciously changed their habits given the new information about their current activity levels, but there’s no way to know for sure based on the subjective information given.
This doesn’t negate the possibility of behavior change taking place, though. While no behavior changes were reported, the meaningful changes observed for the informed workers (whether brought about intentionally or not) is enough for us to see the impact that our mindset can have on our health moving forward.
We often have to address the role of mindset with clients, many of whom can be caught up in negative thought patterns surrounding lifestyle change and plans as a whole.
This can come across even through things as small as, “I’ll try to __,” or, “It may not happen but…”
These phrases don’t seem like much, but they give so much insight into one’s current mindset and portrays to us, as coaches, a detrimental mindset. Our mindset and perception towards these habits are large players in long term adherence and the effort we wind up placing there; kicking off that coaching relationship with a poor outlook is inherently holding you back before we’ve even begun.
Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. 2007. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science. 18; 2: 165-171.