• Dr Sally Norton


I like this idea – it plays to my lazy side, the side that would rather crash on the sofa with a coffee and a paper than get out there for a weekend run.

It’s based on a study that looked at two groups of hotel workers doing a job that involved a lot of physical activity - as anyone who has changed a couple of beds, let alone a hotel-full, will know. One group were told that they were meeting national guidelines for activity by the work that they were doing, the other group were told of those guidelines but not told that they were achieving them. After a few weeks, the informed group had lost weight and fat, reduced their waist measurement and lowered their blood pressure – simply from knowing that they were doing enough exercise.

To test this concept further, the same researchers sent questionnaires to, and followed up over 60,000 people. They asked them about their activity levels (and even measured it at one point in the study) and then asked them whether they thought they were doing enough exercise to be healthy compared to their peers.

On follow-up they found that those who thought they were less active than their peers were more likely to have died in the follow-up period, even if they were doing adequate exercise.

How can this happen?

I think there are three things going on here.

  • First of all, those people who don’t feel they are doing enough may be the worrying types, more introspective. Perhaps they are stressing about how much or how little they are achieving. And there are studies out there that show that negativity is bad for your health.

  • Secondly, if you are feeling good about yourself and think you are doing well in looking after your health, you are more likely to make positive changes in other ways. Perhaps those people were eating more healthy foods and less likely to be smoking or doing other things that adversely affected their health.

  • Thirdly, I think that we are often much harder on ourselves than on others – seeing the problems rather than how well we are managing in the face of everything that life throws at us. Taking the time to give ourselves a pat on the back and a bit of appreciation rather than berating ourselves for failing on yet another diet or similar, is good for our soul and helps keep life in perspective.

And one final message to take away is that making activity a part of our day – vigorous housework, gardening, using the stairs not the lift at work can mean that we are more active than we think – it’s not just about the gym!

So, yes. We need to keep up the fitness levels as activity is good in heaps of ways. But allowing ourselves the odd morning with our feet up, contemplating how well we are looking after ourselves compared to lots of others around us, may be pretty valuable too! Time for another coffee!

Crum, Alia J., and Ellen J. Langer. Mind-set matters: Exercise and the placebo effect. Psychological Science 2007

Zahrt, O. H., & Crum, A. J. Perceived Physical Activity and Mortality: Evidence From Three Nationally Representative U.S. Samples. Health Psychology 2017

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