Do the Right Thing

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Are Some of the Benefits of Exercise Due to Placebo Effects?

Perceived fitness may be as or more important than actual fitness

Exercise makes us feel good, right? It lowers anxiety, depression, stress, and increases well-being and self-esteem. Research and clinical practice has clearly demonstrated that there are many mood and psychological benefits of exercise. But what many people don't realize is that some of these benefits are due to suggestion and thus the placebo effect.

Most people think that exercise improves psychological functioning (such as mood and well-being) due to the physiological effects of increasing your heart rate, moving your body, and altering neurotransmitters such as endorphins. This may be true in part but research also has shown that many of the positive psychological perks of exercise can be manipulated by psychological, behavioral, and suggestion interventions.

In a variety of laboratory and field studies in my lab here at Santa Clara University, we have found that you can manipulate the psychological experiences of exercise by altering environmental factors unrelated to the actual physical exercise someone is doing. In a nutshell, we have conducted a series of experiments where we randomly assign research participants to different exercise situations such as exercising next to someone who is a friend or a stranger, someone perceived as being highly attractive and fit or unattractive and unfit, or exercising while viewing a highly fit professional athlete versus a non-athlete exercising. In all of these and other conditions we have instructed subjects to exercise at the same pace, intensity, and time (e.g., 20 minutes at 70 percent of maximum heart rate). Results indicate that you achieve very different mood and psychological benefits depending on your exercise environment while keeping the actual physical exertion and time of the experience constant. For example, people feel more relaxed and calm when exercising alone rather than with others. They often enjoy exercise more outdoors rather than indoors. They tend to feel more stressed exercising near someone who is attractive.

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Remarkably, we have found that perceived fitness (or your belief about your fitness) is a better predictor of the psychological benefits of exercise than an important measure of actual fitness (as measured by standard fitness assessment or what is called VO2 Max) as well as actual exercise behavior when measured by step counters over several weeks. So, you get more powerful psychological benefits if you believe you are fit compared to some measures of your actual level of aerobic fitness or exercise behavior.

Thus, your beliefs about exercise and fitness are actually more important than you might think when it comes to many of the psychological benefits of exercise.

So, I'm not saying that the benefits of exercise are all based on expectation or placebo effects but that these expectations do infact matter (and perhaps more than we typically think they do). Go ahead and exercise (it is clearly good for your physical and mental health) but also be sure to at least pay attention to your exercise beliefs and environment to get the very most from your workouts.

So, what do you think? 

By the way, if interested, details of this research from my lab can be found in the following publications:

Plante, T. G., Gregg, S., Rubbo, J., Favero, T., Morisako, A., & Cuadra, J. (2011). Impact of exercise partner attractiveness on mood, enjoyment, and exertion. International Journal of Exercise Science, 4 (4), Article 7.

Plante, T. G., Gustafson, C., Brecht, C., Imberi, J., & Sanchez, J. (2011). Exercising with an iPod, friend, or neither: Which is better for psychological benefits? American Journal of Health Behavior, 35, 199-208.

Plante, T. G., Mann, S., Madden, M., Lee, G., Hardesty, A., Terry, A., Gable, N., & Kaplow, G. (2010). Effects of perceived fitness level of exercise partner on intensity of exertion. Journal of Social Sciences, 6, 50-54.

Plante, T. G., Gores, C., Brecht, C., Carrow, J., Imbs, A.., & Willemsen, E. (2007). Does exercise environment enhance the psychological benefits of exercise for women? International Journal of Stress Management, 14, 88-98.

Plante, T. G., Cage, C., Clements, S., & Stover, A. (2006). Psychological benefits of exercise paired with virtual reality: Outdoor exercise energizes while indoor virtual exercise relaxes. International Journal of Stress Management, 13, 108-117.

Plante, T. G., Aldridge, A., Bogden, R., & Hanelin, C. (2003). Might virtual reality promote the mood benefits of exercise? Computers in Human Behavior, 19, 495-509.

Plante, T. G., Aldridge, A., Su, D., Bogden, R., Belo, M., & Khan, K. (2003). Does virtual reality enhance the management of stress when paired with exercise? An exploratory study. International Journal of Stress Management, 10, 203-216.

Plante, T. G., Frazier, S., Tittle, A., Babula, M., Ferlic, E., & Riggs, E. (2003). Does virtual reality enhance the psychological benefits of exercise? Journal of Human Movement Studies, 45, 485-507.

Plante, T. G., Bogdan, R., Kanani, Z., Ferlic, E., Babula, M., & MacAskill, E. (2003). Psychological benefits of exercising with another. Journal of Human Movement Studies, 44, 93-106.

Plante, T. G., Coscarelli, L., & Ford, M. (2001). Does exercising with another enhance the stress reducing benefits of exercise? International Journal of Stress Management, 8, 201-213.

Plante, T. G., Coscarelli, L., Caputo, D., & Oppezzo, M. (2000). Perceived fitness predicts coping with daily stress better than actual fitness or physical activity. International Journal of Stress Management, 7, 181-192.

Plante, T. G., LeCaptain, S., & McLain, H. (2000). Perceived fitness predicts daily coping better than physical activity. Journal of Applied Biobehavioral Research, 5, 66-79.

Plante, T. G., Caputo, D., & Chizmar, L. (2000). Perceived fitness and responses to laboratory induced stress. International Journal of Stress Management, 7, 61-74.

Plante, T. G. (1999). Could the perception of fitness account for many of the mental and physical health benefits of exercise? Advances: in Mind-Body Medicine, 15, 291-301.

Plante, T. G., Chizmar, L., & Owen, D. (1999). The contribution of perceived fitness to physiological and self reported responses to laboratory stress. International Journal of Stress Management, 6, 5-19.

Plante, T. G., Lantis, A., & Checa, G. (1998). The influence of perceived versus aerobic fitness on psychological health and physiological stress responsivity. International Journal of Stress Management, 5, 141-156.

 

 

Thomas Plante, PhD, ABPP, is the Augustin Cardinal Bea, SJ University Professor at Santa Clara University and Adjunct Clinical Professor of Psychiatry at Stanford University.

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