Our mind and body are tightly interconnected.
Often times we can’t talk about our “physical health” without also talking about our “mental health,” and vice versa.
One of the biggest pieces of evidence for the mind-body connection is the placebo effect, which is when a patient is given a “sham drug” (such as a sugar pill), but they still experience a physical change in their body, like reduced pain or reduced anxiety.
A new study published in the scientific journal Health Psychology illustrates another fascinating way our mindset intersects with our physical health.
In this study, researchers looked at surveys from over 60,000 U.S. Adults and asked about their physical activity, health, personal background, and other measures. One of the main questions they looked at was…
“Would you say that you are physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons your age?”
After collecting the results, the researchers then followed up on this study 21 years later by looking at death records of participants.
What they discovered was that individuals who reported that they were “less active” were 71% more likely to die within that follow-up period than those who reported they were “more active,” even after controlling for physical activity, age, body mass index, chronic illness, and other factors.
To put it more simply, individuals that believed they were “less physically active,” even when they did the same amount of physical activity, reported higher rates of mortality.
This is an interesting example of how our mindset can influence our health.
In another study published in Psychological Science, the same researchers looked at the health of room attendants working at 7 different hotels. One randomized group was told that the work they do (cleaning rooms) was equivalent to a full day of exercise.
All hotel cleaners did roughly the same amount of work each day, but the group that was told their work counted for a “full day of exercise” actually reported better health outcomes, including decreases in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index.
But how did this happen? Why does the belief that we are healthy (or unhealthy) have a significant influence over our actual health?
Why Your Mindset About Your Health Matters
While it’s well-known that our mindset can influence our health in a variety of ways, it’s still unclear the exact reason why this happens or how it happens.
Here are common theories as to how our mindset about our health can make a real world difference:
- Your identity influences your actions – If you identify as a healthy person, that can influence you to do other healthy activities. For example, when a friend asks you to go hiking with them, you’ll think “Of course I’ll go! I’m a healthy person who loves hiking.” instead of thinking, “I’m not sure, I need to get more fit first before I can do something like that.” (This is why I recommend the “everything counts” mindset as a great starting point to becoming a healthier person.)
- Negative self-judgment creates unnecessary stress – If you don’t exercise and you begin saying things to yourself like, “I’m a lazy, unhealthy slob” then that negative judgement is only going to increase your stress levels and affect your overall health. In general, stress is a huge factor that contributes to worse health outcomes and makes you more likely to get physically ill, so anything that adds unnecessary stress is likely bad for your physical health as well.
- The placebo effect and the power of suggestion – Our beliefs may also have a power to activate biological processes that our body is capable of doing on its own. For example, most placebo effects can be considered a type of “self-healing” that comes from within. Learning can be an interesting way to boost your mental and physical health.
All of these are common theories as to how our minds can influence our bodies. It’s likely that all 3 of these mechanisms mentioned above play some role in our overall health.
Please Note: Of course this doesn’t mean that your mind always triumphs over your body. If you spend all day sitting on your butt, eating junk food, and consuming alcohol or smoking cigarettes, then there’s no amount of “mental power” that is going to save you from bad habits when it comes to your health and fitness.
However, it’s still important to realize that our mindset does make a big difference. And if we want to maximize our physical health, or begin embarking on a healthier lifestyle, then we have to pay just as much attention to our minds as we do our bodies.
Even the best of professional athletes understand the importance of mindset to change their bodies and reach peak performance, which is a big reason why sports psychology has become such a fast-growing field of study.
Overall, your mindset matters a lot when it comes to a lot of different areas of your life, including your physical health. So don’t underestimate the importance of getting your mind right and cultivating a healthy attitude and perspective.
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