Let’s be real. Positive thinking is cheesy. Positive thinking is a hackneyed, old movement that is far past its prime. But according to science, positive thinking is important if you want to get greater benefits from your workout.
Nope, we’re not making up this stuff. Researchers from the Albert Ludwig University of Freiburg in Germany found out that people who held positive beliefs about exercise were more likely to receive greater benefits from their workout than people who thought exercising was a waste of time – even right after they had the same workouts!
We’ve always been big believers in the mind-body connection. Whatever you put out there in the physical world always starts with whatever is going on inside the mind. But to have actual, systematic science confirm the existence of this connection is a massive deal.
The team of researchers recruited 76 men and women aged 18 to 32 years old and asked them to do the same 30-minute cycling workout on a stationary bicycle.
Before the exercise, the participants were divided into groups. One group had to watch a short film extolling the positive health effects of cycling, while the other group was made to watch a different film that did not emphasize the benefits of exercise. In other words, the scientists were setting up the participants’ expectations right before going into their workouts.
The participants also filled out questionnaires about their beliefs about exercise before the workout, and separate questionnaires afterwards about how they were feeling. The researchers also looked into the participants’ post-workout brain activity with the use of an EEG.
What they found out is further evidence for the power of the placebo effect.
The Placebo Effect in Action
“The results demonstrate that our belief in how much we will benefit from physical activity has a considerable effect on our well-being in the monitor of a self-fulfilling prophecy,” says psychologist and lead researcher Henrik Mothes.
Not surprisingly, people who already had positive expectations about exercising (i.e. those who had positive beliefs and past experiences with working out) reported that they enjoyed the cycling workout more.
Also, people who were more optimistic about exercise had more improved mood levels and felt less anxious. EEG brain scans show they had more alpha2 power, which means they were more relaxed than their more pessimistic counterparts.
Of course, that makes a lot of sense on some basic level. If you think something’s good for you, then you’re likely going to enjoy it more. On the other hand, if you think it sucks, you probably will finish your workout, but you’ll finish it kicking and screaming all the way until the end.
The Benefits of Brain Training
For the naturally pessimistic people who cringe at happy, shiny positive thinkers, you can improve the effects of your workout too if you’re willing to train your brain to look at things through rose-colored glasses from time to time.
The research shows the test subjects who had negative expectations of exercise did not report feeling better afterwards. No surprise there. If your mind is intent on believing something’s bad, it’s going to want to find evidence to reinforce that belief for a while.
However, what the participants didn’t know is that despite their biased self-reports, their brain scans and physical exams actually showed increased benefits if their minds were primed for exercise positively.
Results of the EEG tests show the participants who were shown the positive short film had higher levels of alpha2 power. This means that they actually felt more relaxed – at least on the neuronal level – despite their negative beliefs about exercise and despite reporting that they didn’t. At the same time, their blood pressure went down to healthier levels, whether or not they believed exercising will lead to that or not.
In other words, it doesn’t matter whether you insist you were born a pessimist or you were a pessimist all your life. If you expose your brain to the right stimuli, you’re going to get more out of life. Well, at least out of exercise, according to this study.
“Beliefs and expectations could possibly have long-term consequences, for instance on out motivation to engage in sports,” Mothes says. “They can be a determining factor on whether we can rouse ourselves to go jogging again next time or decide instead to stay at home on the couch.”
The important thing to understand is that what you’re thinking and how you’re thinking play a huge role in getting the most out of your workout. If you think you’re going nowhere, then you most probably are. But if you think you’re living a better life if you exercise, then go ahead and enjoy the feel-good feelings and the fit, healthy body to boot.
Albert LudwigsUniversity of Freiburg. (August 11, 2016). Believe it or not: Exercise does more good if you believe it will.
Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Han-Gue Jo, Harald Seelig, Stefan Schmidt, Reinhard Fuchs. (2016). Expectations affect psychological and neurophysiological benefits even after a single bout of exercise. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, DOI: 10.1007/s10865-016-9781-3