Evgeniia Freeman/ShutterstockDo you feel like you’re getting enough exercise? (And did you know it’s easier to stay active with this secret?) The way you answer could predict how long you live, according to a new study published in Health Psychology: People who think they’re getting enough exercise outlive people who don’t think they hit the gym enough—even when they’re equally active.
Study author Octavia H. Zahrt, a PhD candidate in Organizational Behavior at Stanford, and her faculty advisor at the Business School, Alia J. Crum, PhD, analyzed data on 61,141 American adults who had already answered nationwide health-oriented surveys between 1990 and 2006 regarding their physical activity. Questions addressed what they’d been doing in the recent past, how long they did it for, and how intensely they did it. Some of the people also wore a device that measured their physical activity. And all answered the question, “Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?” The researchers then followed up to see which participants were still alive in 2011.
They found that self-proclaimed slackers were up to 71 percent more likely to die before peers who said they maintained an active lifestyle—even though both groups were getting the same amount of activity, and had the same risks for chronic illnesses and other health-related issues.
In addition to identifying a strong connection between how we perceive our own physical activity and mortality, the study revealed that people do not necessarily perceive their actual levels of physical activity accurately. Participants’ perceptions about physical activity did not mirror their actual activity levels, Zahrt told Eurekalert. She thinks this may be a function of where we live and how fit our peers are. If you live near the beach in Los Angeles, work in an office, and walk five miles a day, for example, you still might perceive yourself as relatively inactive compared to the surfers who are out in the ocean every day—despite the fact that you’re getting plenty of exercise. “Or if you believe that only running or working out at the gym count as real exercise, you may overlook the exercise you are getting at work or at home cleaning and carrying kids around,” Zahrt adds.
Dr. Crum theorizes that when people perceive themselves as being worse off, or performing worse, than their peers, they can become depressed or anxious and that can lead to health declines. She also offers the possibility of a negative placebo—what’s known as the nocebo effect: “Someone who does not believe she is exercising enough may get fewer benefits.” Indeed, other recent research suggests that focusing on the benefits of the exercise you’re doing may both make the exercise feel easier and inspire you to do it more often.
“Campaigns urging individuals to meet recommended physical activity levels should also make them aware of the exercise that they are already getting as part of their jobs or everyday activities,” urge the authors. “Our research suggests that perceiving everyday activities as good exercise is almost as important as doing the activities in the first place. In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important not only to adopt healthy behaviors but also healthy thoughts.”
You can begin by taking a stand against sitting and then recognizing that in so doing, your health will benefit!