For years I’ve heard the various exercise gurus state that if you concentrate on the muscle you’re working, you’ll work the muscle harder. Of course, the word “hogwash” came to mind the first time I heard that assertion, but over time I noticed that it was true. I developed this awareness long before I was introduced to the mind and body connection and the art of “mindfulness” as espoused by Dr. Ellen Langer, Ph.D. who is a social psychologist at Harvard University. You will hear more about her work in my second book on how our unconscious beliefs age us. But, for now, I want to share one particular Langer experiment with you.
Conventional wisdom declares that in order to lose weight it’s just a matter of calories in versus calories out. So we dutifully join a gym, run, walk, swim, bike or play tennis in order to “burn” those calories out!
I’ve had a string of sedentary positions, but there are many trades that require physical activity even though most people view their job and exercise as two separate activities. The experiment included 84 female hotel attendants who spent their working day cleaning rooms which would, of course, require a good amount of exertion. Medical and lifestyle information was collected and they were interviewed regarding their work and exercise routines. The participants did not view their occupation as a source of exercise so two-thirds reported not exercising regularly and one third said they did not exercise at all. However, despite their daily physical activity at work, the women were in poor health.
The question Langer and Crum wanted to be answered was if the attitudes of the room attendants, who did not perceive their work as exercise, could be changed, would they reap the benefits?
The women were divided into two groups and all were made aware of the benefits of exercise and that the organizers were interested in getting information on their health so they could study ways to improve it. However, one group was also informed that they were getting enough exercise through their daily work as a hotel attendant to satisfy the CDC’s recommendations for an active lifestyle.
The control group did not receive information about work as exercise (that information was shared with them after the experiment was concluded).
After four weeks Langer and Crum returned to take follow-up measures. The participants’ supervisors for both groups reported that the work levels remained consistent throughout the experiment. However, the informed group reported getting more exercise even though the physical activity outside of work was reported to be less.
The informed group lost an average of 2 pounds with a sizeable reduction of body fat and an increase in muscle mass (which makes the weight loss more significant), while members of the control group actually gained weight and body fat. The attendants in the informed group also showed a considerable drop in blood pressure.
The two groups had been virtually the same, so how can one group show such a noteworthy improvement?
This can only be explained by a mind shift in the members of the group that learned to view their everyday work as exercise.
The next time you scold yourself for not making time to “exercise,” re-think your attitude toward raking the leaves, vacuuming the house, mowing the lawn and scrubbing the bathrooms. You are stretching, bending, pulling, shoving, pushing and probably doing some deep knee bends too.