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Believing That You're Less Physically Active Than Others May Shorten Your Lifespan

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07/30/2017 11:30 EDT | Updated 07/30/2017 11:30 EDT
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A new study suggests that your mindset about exercise can have an impact on your health.

How active do you think you are compared to other people?

If you answered "less active," that might contribute to a shorter lifespan, according to a new study published in Healthy Psychology.

The research, conducted by Stanford scholars Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum, finds that people who think they are less active than others who are of similar age die younger than those who believe they are more active, even if their activity levels are the same.

"Our findings fall in line with a growing body of research suggesting 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," Crum said in a news release.

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"So much effort, notably in public health campaigns, is geared toward motivating people to change their behaviour: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less," she continued, "but an important variable is being left out of the equation: people's mindsets about those healthy behaviours."

Past studies have looked at how one's mindset can affect one's health and the psychological consequences, NPR reports. In 2007, Crum conducted a study on hotel attendants, and said, "These women were getting lots of exercise, but when we asked them they didn't have the mindset that their work was good exercise."

She then gave a presentation to some of the staff that stated that their work, which involved heavy lifting and walking, was good exercise, and proceeded to track them for a month. "The women who started to look at their work as good exercise had improvements in blood pressure and body fat," she said.

So much effort... is geared toward motivating people to change their behaviour: eat healthier, exercise more and stress less, but an important variable is being left out of the equation: people's mindsets about those healthy behaviours.

For the Stanford study, the researchers analyzed surveys from more than 60,000 American adults, which documented their levels of physical activity, health and personal background, and whether they thought they were "more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age."

They then looked at death records 21 years after the first survey was conducted, and found that those who believed they were less physically active than others in the same age group were up to 71 per cent more likely to die in the follow-up period than those who believed that they were more active.

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Zahrt and Crum came up with a possible theory for how mindsets can have such a big impact on one's health, explaining that perceptions can affect motivation, both positively and negatively. For example, with the hotel staff study, those who were made more aware that they actually had healthy activity levels exercised more, but those who saw themselves as unfit were more likely to remain inactive and suffer from mental health issues such as depression.

"It's time that we start taking the role of mindsets in health more seriously," Crum said. "In the pursuit of health and longevity, it is important to adopt not only healthy behaviours, but also healthy thoughts."

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