Mental Workout Cuts Calories

Believing that your actions are exercise may help burn calories, study says

Move over, Tae Bo. Professor of Psychology Ellen J. Langer has found a new way to exercise.

A recent study conducted by Langer’s laboratory, published in the February edition of Psychological Science, finds that having the proper mindset plays a key role in producing the beneficial effects of exercise.

According to Langer, being cognizant of these benefits acts as a placebo, thus amplifying the positive effects.

“By fooling the mind, we essentially fool the body,” she said.

Langer tested her theory on over 80 housekeepers employed by seven hotels in the Boston area. Those in four of the hotels were told that their work—cleaning rooms for nearly eight hours a day—was beneficial to their health. Women at the remaining three hotels were told nothing.

“In looking at a population like the chamber maids, you think, ‘here’s this group of people physically working hard all day long, but many of whom don’t know the benefits of their work and are just not healthy,’” said Langer.

Langer found that the women who were informed of the healthful effects of their work lost an average of two pounds each without making major changes to their lifestyles, while the uninformed women reaped no such benefits.

“If you put your mind in an exercise place, your body will follow,” Langer said.

Diana L. Steplyk, coaching assistant for the Harvard women’s volleyball team and front desk manager at the Malkin Athletic Center (MAC), said that having the proper mindset while working out can be helpful.

“I think it’s true that if you have the right mindset when you’re working out rather than just going through the motions, your body will react positively,” she said. “We always try to get our girls focused and in the moment.”

But when asked whether she thought Harvard students should replace their workouts with mindfulness exercises when the MAC closes for a 6 to 8-month rennovation on March 19th, instead of making the trek to alternative venues such as Hemenway Gymnasium or Blodgett Pool, Steplyk said, “I wouldn’t recommend it.”

But Langer says that if a person truly believes what he or she is doing is exercise, the benefits will ensue, even if that exercise consists of lifting a remote control while sitting on a couch.

“If people can fully persuade themselves that what they’re doing is exercise, this effect will work,” said Langer. “But most people aren’t led to believe, and so it won’t work.”