Mind-Set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect
ABSTRACT —In a study testing whether the relationship between exercise and health is moderated by one's mind-set, 84 female room attendants working in seven different hotels were measured on physiological health variables affected by exercise. 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 behaviour did not change, 4 weeks after the intervention, the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. As a result, compared with the control group, they showed a decrease in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. These results support the hypothesis that exercise affects health in part or in whole via the placebo effect.
Frank Forencich commented on this in a recent Animal Times Newsletter:
I am a wizard, a shaman, a healer and a magician. I can heal your body by the power of words alone. I can tell you a story and increase the vitality of your tissue, your posture and your disposition. My story doesn't even have to be true.
Skeptical? Well of course you are. But maybe my claims aren't so far-fetched. Consider this ingenious experiment carried out by Ellen Langer and Alia Crum (reported in the February, 2007 issue of Psychological Science):
Researchers took 84 hotel workers and told one group that "the work you do (cleaning hotel rooms) is good exercise and satisfies the Surgeon General's recommendations for an active lifestyle." They told a control group nothing.
Four weeks later, Langer and Crum returned to take measurements of both groups: the control group hadn't changed physically but the test group had decreased weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.
So what's up with this astonishing result? Both groups did identical tasks, yet one lived a different story, a story that had authentic, measurable effects on physical health. Making beds and cleaning bathrooms usually doesn't qualify as a "health and fitness program," but in this case, it worked.
Obviously, what we have here is yet another instance of a placebo effect; a very dramatic and revealing one at that. The stories we tellÐboth to each other and to ourselvesÐshape the entire health experience, from mind to molecules.
There are a lot of questions here, but the one I wonder about is this: What does this research say about all of our so-called expertise in the world of physical education and training? What does it say about all the boilerplate advice that's cranked out by the fitness-industrial complex? How much of it is reality-based? How much of it is simply a story? These are questions that demand our attention.