Thinking you're active even if you're not can lengthen your life

Oceane Deschanel
Julho 21, 2017

In a new study in the journal Health Psychology, people who thought they were less active than their peers had a greater chance of dying younger-even if their actual activity levels were the same.

The study was correlative, meaning the researchers can't say for sure why more people said they didn't exercise enough before they died.

Led by Octavia Zahrt, PhD, and Dr. Alia Crum, researchers studied three nationally representative samples, which comprised of data from more than 60,000 American adults gathered from 1990 to 2006.

Researchers analysed surveys from more than 60,000 US adults that documented participants' levels of physical activity, health and personal background, and in one of the samples, participants wore an accelerometer to measure their activity over a one-week period.

The researchers found that people who thought they were less active than their peers were up to 71 percent more likely to die during the follow-up period (of up to 21 years) than those who perceived themselves as more active - even when both groups had similar activity levels. "But most people do not know that thinking you are not exercising enough can also harm your health".

Some also wore a device called an accelerometer that measured their real-time activity levels for a week.

"Our research suggests that our mindsets - in this case beliefs about how much exercise we are getting relative to others - can play a crucial role in our health", said Alia Crum, of the University of Stanford. In addition, participants reported their perceived level of physical activity by answering the question, "Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?"

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If you live in an area where most of your peers are really fit, you might perceive yourself as relatively inactive, even though your exercise may be sufficient, Dr Zahart says.

"Following this logic, someone who does not believe that she is exercising enough may get fewer physiological benefits from activity than someone who believes she is exercising enough", Dr. Crum continued.

"Placebo effects are very robust in medicine". Whether or not they are active enough would be irrelevant to those people.

People's perceptions about how much physical activity they are getting are often quite different from the reality.

"So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behaviour: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less", Dr Crum said.

Although the research identifies a correlation between perceived amounts of exercise and health outcomes, it does not show that perceptions of inactivity cause an earlier death.

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