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Physical exercise becomes less healthy if you think you're not doing much

Physical exercise becomes less healthy if you think the amount you're doing is not very impressive, and that your peers are more active and sportier than you are. Psychologists Octavia Zahrt and Alia Crum at Stanford University report this in Health Psychology.

The researchers analysed data on 61,141 American adults. The researchers knew how much exercise the participants got, and how much exercise they thought they had in comparison to people of the same age. Then the researchers worked out how many and which participants had died.

The participants who thought that they exercised less than their age mates were more likely to die than participants who thought they exercised more than their age mates. The relationship remained the same after the researchers had done computations to filter out the effect of the actual amount of physical exercise the participants had [Hazard ratio 2].

And the effect was still present after correcting for all other factors they could think of [Hazard ratio 3].

Physical exercise becomes less healthy if you think you’re not doing much

Physical exercise becomes less healthy if you think you’re not doing much

The table above is based on data from 8953 people who participated in the NHANES project in the 21st century. The researchers analysed data from two other datasets, from different studies. The results were the same.

"Individuals who thought they were less active than other people their age were more likely to die, regardless of health status, body mass index, and so on," summarised research leader Crum in an interview. [ July 20, 2017.]

"I was very surprised by the size of [that effect]," added first author Zahrt. "That there would be an effect on mortality so many years later, that wasn't necessarily obvious to me."

Zahrt experienced the effects of a negative perception of physical exercise herself when she moved from London to America. After moving she did the same amount of exercise as before, but something changed.

"When I was in school in London, I felt really good about my activity. Then I moved to Stanford, and everyone around me seems to be so active and going to the gym every day," she said. "In the San Francisco Bay Area, it's like 75 percent of people walk around here wearing exercise clothes all day, every day, all the time, and just looking really fit. I felt unhealthy. I was very stressed about fitting in more exercise."

Zahrt thinks her findings are useful for scientists and people who advise the public on the positive effects of physical exercise. "If you tell people they need to get this really high level of activity or else they have all these healthy complications and die early, you might just be instilling this negative mindset," she explained. This can reduce the positive health effect of exercise.

"The ultimate end goal is the sense of enoughness," concluded Crum. "If you're thinking, every day, that you haven't done enough, that is problematic."

Health Psychol. 2017 Jul 20. doi: 10.1037/hea0000531. [Epub ahead of print].

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