Pay attention if you think you’re lazier than your pals: A new study by researchers at Stanford University found that laziness can be hazardous to your health — and it has nothing to do with the actual amount of exercise you do.
Researchers Octavia Zahry and Alia Crum studied two decades worth of data from 61,141 adults that died by Dec. 31, 2011, and found that those who just thought they were lazier than their pals were much more likely to die.
It’s a dark side to the placebo effect, a phenomenon where people’s beliefs affect the outcome of a medical treatment, no matter if those outcomes are actually from the treatment or just in their heads. The mind body connection isn't always a good thing, it seems.
“For any given level of physical activity, people may perceive themselves as more or less active, fit, and healthy, depending on what they believe is the 'right' type and amount of activity," the researchers report in the study, published in the journal Health Psychology. "We present suggestive evidence that such perceptions meaningfully affect health outcomes."
Participants in the study provided demographic information when they signed up for the study and some were asked if they were “physically more active, less active, or about as active as other persons” their age. They were then given a list of physical activities and asked if they participated in any of the activities recently, along with the length of time and frequencies of those activities.
Another 9,000 participants wore accelerometers that provided records of their activity for seven days.
"The less active individuals perceived themselves to be, as compared with other people their age, the more likely they were to die in the follow-up period," the researchers wrote of the results. "Individuals who perceived themselves as less active than other people their age had an up to 71 percent higher mortality risk than those who perceived themselves as more active.”
"Most important," they add, "this result held when controlling for actual amounts of activity, either as reported in the detailed questionnaires or through accelerometer data,” meaning that they might be just as active as their peers (or even more active), but they assumed otherwise and it eventually affected their lifespan.
It seems like a bit of a stretch to say that lazy thoughts can directly affect death, but Zahry and Crum say it shows that those thoughts ultimately affect motivation, like “I’m already sedentary and unhealthy, so why even bother changing it now?”
The key — they say — is to change people’s perceptions around exercise and show that some exercise isn’t an all-or-nothing pursuit.
"Many Americans think that the only healthy physical activity is vigorous exercise in a gym or on a track," Crum said. "Our research suggest that perceiving everyday activities as good exercise is almost as important as doing the activities in the first place."