By: Sarah Sommer, MPH, CHES
The mind is a powerful thing with the ability to shape how we perceive the world. But can our perceptions impact our own health?
Research into mindset, which is often called “the story we tell ourselves”, suggests that it is definitely possible. Here are a few examples:
A study published last year by the American Medical Association looked at descriptions of healthy food and their association with consumption. This study labeled vegetables prepared exactly the same way with one of four descriptions: a basic description (zucchini), a healthy restrictive description (lighter-choice zucchini), a healthy positive description (nutritious green zucchini) or an indulgent description (slow-roasted caramelized zucchini bites). They recorded the number of people who ordered each vegetable and measured the amount taken from the bowl. More people ordered the vegetable and consumed a greater amount when labeled with the indulgent description when compared to the other descriptions.
The labels on food can affect how our body responds to food, as well. A study by Dr. Alia Crum gave participants the same milkshake labeled as either a 620 calorie “indulgent” shake or a 140 calorie “sensible” shake. When participants drank what they thought was the indulgent shake, they had a greater decrease in the hormone that regulates metabolism than when they drank the “sensible” shake. Their bodies actually responded as if they had consumed more calories despite the shake being exactly the same.
A 2017 study, published in Health Psychology, showed that individuals who perceived themselves as less physically active than their peers were 71 percent more likely to die in the follow-up period compared to those who perceived themselves as more physically active. This was true even when accounting for actual levels of physical activity and other known determinants of mortality. That means even though people exercised the same amount, what they believed about how active they were made a difference.
While actually engaging in certain behaviors certainly matters, this research suggests that the story we tell ourselves has some impact on our health and well-being. So how can we change our mindset to improve our health? Here are a few practical tips:
Be positive. Start seeing things in a more positive light, and focus on what you can do rather than what you can’t. If you’re trying to eat healthy, don’t focus on what you’re giving up. Instead, think about what you’re gaining, how delicious healthy food can be, and how you feel when you’re taking care of yourself through nutrition.
Challenge negative thoughts. Negative thoughts happen, and that’s okay, but try challenging them instead of focusing on them and coming up with a practical alternative. For example, if your goal is to become more active and you miss your morning workout you might think, “I didn’t work out this morning and won’t have time later today. I might as well start next week.” Try coming up with a reasonable alternative. “Instead of going to the gym, I’ll go for a walk with my family after dinner.” Changing your thinking to something that is less rigid will help you move forward and continue to make positive changes.
Create a wellness vision. It may sound silly, but it helps to get a clear vision and articulate what you’re trying to achieve in your health and wellness journey. Paint a mental picture of what it looks like when you achieve your goal. How do you feel when you put yourself in that picture? Who is around you supporting your goals? Make it as detailed as possible. Now, put it in a few sentences and make sure those sentences start with “I am…”. What you feel you are dominates your thinking more than what you would like to be.