Excerpt from The effect of anticipation: how your thinking can change your world David Robson with permission from Henry Holt and company. Copyright © 2022 David Robson.
The power of the mind-body bond has long been known among professional athletes.
Runner for medium and long distances Paawa Nurmi (1897-1973) – a nine-time Olympic gold medalist nicknamed the Flying Finn – said this when he said: “Mind is everything; muscles, pieces of rubber. All that I am, I am because of my mind. ”
This is also a philosophy Eliud Kipchoge from Kenya is perhaps the greatest marathoner of all time. “I always say that I run not on my feet, but on my heart and mind,” he explained. “What makes a person run more is his mind. If your mind is calm and well focused, then your whole body is under control. ”
Scientists are now catching up. The latest findings may help professional athletes break world records, but they are even more relevant for those who are reluctant to exercise, struggling to maintain fitness. By adopting the right mindset, even a devoted couch can get more benefits and less pain from their workouts.
Mind over muscles
Much of this new understanding stems from placebo effects studies. Consider the study of caffeine – a muscle stimulant that is believed to increase performance in many sports. In one study, bodybuilders were given an injection of a bitter-tasting liquid in which they believed it contained a high concentration of caffeine. In reality, it was a decaffeinated dose, but they still managed to increase the number of repetitions by about 10 percent above the previous limit.
Other researchers have investigated the impact of expectations on participants’ “maximum aerobic potential” (V.O.2 max) – the peak of oxygen consumption during intense exercise. To find out if a positive response could change this basic measure of physical fitness, researchers from the University of Nevada, Las Vegas, asked a group of participants to go through two VOs.2 maximum tests. Although the first test was accurately measured, some received false positive reviews about their performance. This led to a much better result on the second VO2 test in a few days. In other words, how much a person looked in shape changed depending on how much he considered himself.
Our expectations of our physical abilities interact with our genetic predisposition to exercise, according to an article published in 2019. Scientists have for the first time conducted a genetic test to determine whether their participants carry a specific version of the CREB1 gene, which is thought to reduce aerobic capacity and increase body temperature during exercise. The test was valid, and the researchers kept a record of the results. However, the result given to the participants was random, creating expectations that they either were or were not “naturally” good at the exercise. Those with negative expectations showed decreased endurance, with less airflow to and from the lungs, and with oxygen and carbon dioxide transport. Some of these physiological parameters were more affected by the effects of expectations than the actual gene type.
An invisible exercise
Some of the most striking effects of anticipation concern our perception of our fitness outside the gym. Many daily tasks can strengthen the body, even if they do not look like a typical workout. According to groundbreaking research, the meaning we give to these activities can determine whether we get all the benefits of exercise.
The existence of “invisible exercises” should come as no surprise – our understanding of this dates back to the very first study to examine the benefits of physical activity. Shortly after World War II, British physiologist Jeremy Morris wanted to understand why some people are more prone to heart disease than others.
The men working in the London buses proved to be an ideal population for training. Drivers spent most of the day sitting, and conductors going up and down stairs to pick up fares and help passengers with luggage. Although it was a relatively mild exercise, Morris found that daily activity roughly halved the risk of heart failure in bus conductors.
Maurice’s findings inspired an avalanche of further research on the benefits of exercise. A highly publicized recommendation is that we should aim for 150 minutes moderate exercise (or 75 minutes energetic activity) per week can be traced to these bus conductors. But many of us still don’t realize what is actually considered moderate or vigorous exercise, and this is important when it comes to shaping our fitness thinking.
To compare the intensity of different activities, physiologists use a quantity known as “metabolic equivalents” (MET). Moderate exercises range from 3 to 6 MET, and vigorous exercise – above 6 MET. Many daily activities and entertainment meet these requirements:
|Washing the floor||3|
|Furnishes the bed||3.3|
|Cooking / washing||3.3|
|Joinery (eg nailing)||3|
|Painting / wallpaper||3.3|
|How much firewood||4.5|
|Mowing the lawn||6|
|Playing outdoors with children||5.8|
How many of us play with our kids or dance the night away without even realizing we’re training? At the very least, greater appreciation for such activities should make us more positive about our fitness levels – altered expectations that can readjust the forecasting machine to make other, more formal workouts feel less stressful.
Even more notably, this shift in thinking can determine the long-term benefits of the activities themselves, according to a study by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer of Harvard. By treating daily activities as exercise rather than work, we can become healthier.
The participants were cleaners from seven different hotels. Cram and Langer suspected that few of these cleaners would be aware of the sheer amount of exercise involved in their work, and given the strength of anticipation that can shape our physiology, it could prevent them from reaping all the benefits of their daily workouts. To test the idea, the researchers visited four hotels and gave cleaners information on the types of physical activity considered exercise, and then offered some details on the energy needs of cleaners, which within a week should easily add to the general surgeon’s exercise recommendations.
A month later, the scientists visited the cleaners again to measure any changes in their health. Although the cleaners who received this information did not report changes in diet or increased physical activity outside of work, they lost about two pounds each and their average blood pressure dropped from elevated to normal. The change in expectations – and the meaning that the cleaners attributed to their work – changed their bodies, while the cleaners in the other three hotels, who did not receive information, did not show a difference.
It was a relatively small study – and there was always the possibility that after they were given the information, the cleaners put a little more “enthusiasm” into their work. But the follow-up to Shop, now based in Stanford, and her colleague Octavia Zart provides much more compelling evidence that people’s expectations can indeed affect the long-term benefits of exercise through the mind-body bond. Their study used data from health surveys that looked at more than 60,000 people under the age of 21. Cram and Zart found that participants’ “apparent physical activity” – whether or not they felt they were exercising more or less than the average person – could predict the risk of death even after researchers monitored the amount of time subjects said they actually spent exercise and other lifestyle factors such as diet.
It is important to note that some of the participants in these surveys wore an accelerometer for part of the study period, but the effect of their presumed physical activity remained after the researchers considered these objective indicators of physical activity. Overall, people who were more pessimistic about their fitness were up to 71 percent more likely to die during surveys, compared to those who thought they were more active than average, regardless of their actual workout status.
Summarizing the relevant evidence to date, a recent review article concluded that our expectations of exercise can shape perceived exercise, mood, self-esteem, cardiorespiratory fitness, and blood pressure are all important outcomes of any workout.
What this may mean for you
There are many ways we can apply these effects of anticipation ourselves.
The first step is to be honest about your current assumptions. You may have formed negative beliefs about your innate propensity for fitness based on a bad gym experience; if so, you can try to question whether they reflect objective truth – and remind yourself that everyone can improve their fitness, no matter what the starting level.
Second, you can try to rethink the feelings of the exercises themselves. For many people, shortness of breath and sweating cause negative patterns of thinking – the belief that you are “hopeless” and “weak” and you are destined to fail. Instead, remind yourself that pain is a sign that you are building muscle strength, increasing blood flow and dilating your lungs.
Third, you should avoid “comparison up”. Instagram and TikTok are full of “fitspiration” accounts, but research shows that look at these photos before a workout can lead to deterioration of body image and a greater sense of tension during exercise.
By applying this research, we cannot achieve immediate miracles, but even modest effects of anticipation can make it much easier to follow your fitness goals. The end result will be a longer, happier and healthier life – a much better prize than a gold medal.
David Robson is an award-winning research writer based in the United Kingdom. He graduated from Cambridge University, previously worked as an editor at New Scientist and a senior journalist at the BBC. His articles have appeared in the Guardian, Atlantic, Men’s Health, The Psychologist, Washington Post and many other publications. His first book, The trap of intelligencewas published in 2019 and has been translated into fifteen languages.