Can we think away the pounds?
1: Two-thirds of the housekeepers in Stanford Professor Alia Crum‘s study believed they weren’t exercising regularly. One-third said they got no exercise at all.
“Their bodies reflected this perception,” Kelly McGonigal notes in The Upside of Stress. “The average housekeeper’s blood pressure, waist-to-hip ratio, and body weight were exactly what you’d expect to find if they were truly sedentary,”
Their perception was their reality.
2: Four weeks later, Alia checked in with the housekeepers. “Those who had been informed that their work was exercise had lost weight and body fat. Their blood pressure was lower. They even liked their jobs more,” Kelly shares.
Which is different from actual reality: “Housekeeping is strenuous work, burning over 300 calories an hour,” Kelly writes. “As exercise, that puts it on par with weight lifting, water aerobics, and walking 3.5 miles per hour. In comparison, office work—such as sitting in meetings or working on a computer—burns roughly 100 calories an hour.”
Alia made a 15-minute presentation to housekeepers at four hotels telling them they were clearly exceeding the surgeon general’s recommendations for physical exercise.
She also designed a poster describing how housekeeping qualifies as exercise. “Lifting mattresses to make beds, picking up towels off the floor, pushing heavily loaded carts, and vacuuming—these all require strength and stamina,” Kelly writes. “The poster even included the calories burned while doing each activity (for example, a 140-pound woman would burn 60 calories cleaning the bathrooms for fifteen minutes).” Alia hung copies of poster, in both English and Spanish, on the bulletin boards in the housekeepers’ lounges.
The housekeepers at three other hotels were the “control group.” They received information about how important physical exercise is for health, but Alia did not share that their work qualified as working out.
“They had not made any changes in their behavior outside work. The only thing that had changed was their perception of themselves as exercisers. In contrast, housekeepers in the control group showed none of these improvements.”
Does this mean we can lose weight by telling ourselves its good to watch television in order to burn calories?
Sorry, no, Kelly says. What Alia told the housekeepers was true: The women really were exercising. Yet, they didn’t see their work that way. In fact, they were more likely to view housekeeping as hard on their bodies.
“The housekeepers’ perception of their work as healthy exercise transformed its effects on their bodies. In other words, the effect you expect is the effect you get,” Kelly notes.
3: Alia’s next study pushed the power of mindset even further.
“The ‘Shake Tasting Study’ invited hungry participants to come to the laboratory at 8 am after an overnight fast,” Kelly shares. “On their first visit, participants were given a milkshake labeled “Indulgence: Decadence You Deserve,” with a nutritional label showing 620 calories and 30 grams of fat. On their second visit, one week later, they drank a milkshake labeled Sensi-Shake: Guilt-Free Satisfaction,’ with 140 calories and zero grams of fat.”
The milkshake drinkers were hooked up to an intravenous catheter that drew blood samples. Alia measured changes in blood levels of ghrelin, the hunger hormone. When blood levels of ghrelin go down, we feel full. When blood levels go up, we start looking for a snack. When we eat something high in calories or fat, ghrelin levels drop dramatically. Less-filling foods have less impact.
“One would expect a decadent milkshake and a healthful one to have a very different effect on ghrelin levels—and they did,” notes Kelly. “Drinking the Sensi-Shake led to a small decline in ghrelin, while consuming the Indulgence shake produced a much bigger drop.
But here’s the thing: The milkshake labels were a sham. All participants had drank the same 380-calorie milkshake both times. There should have been no difference in how the participants’ digestive tracts responded. And yet, when they believed the shake was an indulgent treat, their ghrelin levels dropped three times as much as when they thought it was a diet drink.
“Once again, the effect people expected–fullness–was the outcome they got,” Kelly concludes.
Reflection: What surprises me about this research? In what area might I benefit from choosing to change my mindset?
Action: Do it. Today.