Friday's Wall Street Journal science column features some research showing this form of magic may be pretty darn effective.
Everyday activities do count toward the 30 minutes of daily exercise the surgeon general recommends. But according to a new study, the mere belief that you are getting a workout affects physiology as much as the workout itself does. That is, exercise may affect health in part through the placebo effect: you believe you are doing your body good, and that belief leads to some of the well-documented benefits of exercise.
Psychology researcher Ellen Langer of Harvard has long been intrigued by mind-over-body effects. She and student Alla Crum therefore invited 84 women, ages 15 to 55 years old, who worked as housekeepers at seven Boston hotels, to participate in a study. Those in four hotels were told that their regular work was good exercise and met the guidelines for a healthy, active lifestyle. After all, the women cleaned about 15 rooms a day, taking 20 to 30 minutes for each, so they did get a bit of a workout. Those in the other three hotels were told nothing.
Questionnaires established that the actual amount of work the women did, at work as well as off duty, didn't change over the four weeks of the study. Yet the so-called informed group told the scientists that their life was healthier. They had taken to heart the information about the fitness value of stripping beds and scrubbing bathrooms.
More surprising, the women in the informed group lost an average of two pounds, saw their systolic blood pressure (the first number) drop 10%, lost about 0.5% of their body fat, and reduced their body-mass index by 0.35 of a point. The other women saw no such changes.
True, these weren't "I dropped 20 pounds in a month!" results. But considering that the women made no changes in how they lived or ate (the informed group didn't start dieting, for instance), it was nothing to sneeze at. The only change for the women who reaped these benefits was in their heads: They now believed their cleaning work was a fitness routine.
"If you can put the mind in a healthy place, you can have dramatic physiological consequences," says Prof. Langer, whose study will appear in the February issue of Psychological Science.