New Research Explains Why Some of Us Really Hate to Exercise
"Placebo expectations" influence perceived exertion during moderate exercise.
Posted July 1, 2017
A new study reaffirms that simply believing physical exercise is good for your mind and body can change the degree to which someone perceives moderate-intensity physical activity as a strenuous endeavor. More specifically, the researchers found that the combination of believing in one's own athletic abilities along with having scientific knowledge about the benefits of exercise was the ultimate winning formula. This combo appeared to create a self-fulfilling prophecy that made moderate-intensity aerobic exertion seem less strenuous and more enjoyable for most study participants.
These findings were published in a paper, "Do Placebo Expectations Influence Perceived Exertion During Physical Exercise?" on June 29 in the journal PLOS ONE. This new study is a follow-up to another research initiative on the placebo effect of exercise belief systems conducted last year by sports psychologist Hendrik Mothes and his team at the University of Freiburg in Germany. (I reported on this 2016 study in a Psychology Today blog post, "If You Believe in Exercise, It'll Make You Feel Good.")
Last year, Mothes and his Institute of Sports and Sport Science colleagues reported that if people believed that aerobic physical activity would have positive results, it created a self-fulfilling prophecy. i.e. If someone believed riding a stationary bicycle would lead to positive outcomes—they enjoyed exercise more, it improved their mood more, and the workout reduced anxiety more than for counterparts who made universally negative associations with exercise. This August 2016 paper, "Expectations Affect Psychological and Neurophysiological Benefits Even After a Single Bout of Exercise," was published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine.
For their latest study, the Freiburg researchers wanted to explore how someone’s own expectations and belief in his or her athletic ability influenced how strenuous he or she rated perceived exertion (RPE) while riding a stationary bicycle at moderate intensity. The research team enlisted 78 men and women between 18 and 32 years of age from a larger pool based on similar levels of physical fitness and sedentary behaviors. Physiologically, participants shared a similar degree of "athleticism." That said, prior to the experiment, researchers asked each person, “How athletic do you think you are?” How would you respond to this question?
Notably, the researchers found that the degree to which someone self-rated him or herself as being "athletic" appeared to create a self-fulfilling prophecy regarding the degree of perceived exertion expressed during a 30-minute workout. Those who believed they were more athletic described moderate exercise as much easier than cohorts who were equally fit but self-identified as being less athletic. This group seemed to psyche themselves out. They perceived moderate exercise as being acutely strenuous and inexplicably arduous.
All animals (including humans) seek pleasure and avoid pain. Therefore, the idea that moderate-to-vigorous physical activity (MVPA) is a painful experience is one reason so many of us avoid seeking regular exercise or breaking a sweat. From an evolutionary standpoint, it's helpful to remember: Everything that human beings have done for our survival over millennia—eating, sleeping, bonding with others, having sex, cooperating, working hard physically, breaking a sweat, etc.—are all hardwired to make us feel good psychophysiologically. This is a generous biological design and at the same time necessary for our individual and collective survival.
My primary goal in this blog post is to present some actionable advice for anyone who might not automatically self-identify as an "athlete" or finds physical exercise to be an insufferable form of torture. If you have doubts about your so-called "athleticism," I hope reading this will help you identify ways to change your mindset and explanatory style so you can learn to enjoy moderate-intensity exercise more by not pigeonholing yourself as being "unathletic."
The latest findings by Mothes and his team resonate with me on a personal level for a variety of reasons. But, in my opinion, this research has the potential to backfire and take the wind out of anyone's sails who wouldn't self-identify as being athletic. (Which is probably the majority of the general population.) I know from first-hand experience that convincing yourself or someone else to have faith in his or her own innate athleticism often requires some psychological acrobatics or coming to grips with deep-rooted athletic insecurities left over from childhood.
I am passionate about this topic because, as a gay teen, I found myself trapped at an oppressive boarding school in Wallingford, Connecticut where I was bullied by my Dean (who was also head coach of the varsity football and baseball teams) for not displaying any interest in playing sports. At the time, he succeeded in his efforts to make me feel "less than" and like an unathletic "sissy." (Yes, I still have a chip on my shoulder from this experience.)
Nevertheless, when I was seventeen, I got my hands on a Walkman (a portable audio cassette player which had recently been invented) and discovered that breaking a sweat while running to music that I loved made me feel really good—regardless of how fast or slow I was jogging. The year was 1983. "Flashdance...What a Feeling" and "Holiday" were my anthems. The exuberance and positive emotional valence of these songs became like rocket fuel that took me to a magical place every day when I laced up my sneakers to go for a jog. (To this day, blasting music soundtracks and playlists from this era never fails to make whatever type of workout I'm doing seem infinitely easier.)
I describe the process of stumbling upon the transformative power of physical activity as a teenager in the "My Story" chapter of The Athlete's Way: Sweat and the Biology of Bliss (St. Martin's Press). On p. 10, Christopher Bergland writes:
Feeling like a black sheep and an underdog has served me well as an athlete. It makes me more of a trailblazer. I will always fight harder and dig deeper to prove that I'm not a sissy. When I started running in June 1983 my body was a toxic waste dump. I could run for about twelve minutes maximum. I was a weak, washed-out, drug-abusing teenager.
From June to September, I went from being a cynical, messed-up kid to being an enthusiastic, ambitious go-getter. More impressive to me than having a new washboard stomach and strong seventeen-year-old biceps was that my brain had been transformed. My learned helplessness and self-destruction waned; I had developed a sense of dignity. I went from being a straight-C student in high school to blazing through college in three years. I had velocity and felt unstoppable. It was a conversion experience.
During this coming of age period, I would channel Muhammad Ali as an alter-ego and speak to myself in a third-person coaching voice using Ali quotations such as, "If they can make penicillin out of moldy bread, they can surely make something out of you." Or, "It's the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief. And once that belief becomes deep conviction, things begin to happen." I scribbled these quotes and other inspirational phrases down on fluorescent green notecards and kept them on a nightstand next to my bed to help pound this mindset into my head.
The latest findings by Mothes et al. provide further evidence that the placebo effect and self-affirmations can have an impact on someone’s rating of perceived exertion during sports—if you can create a semblance of athletic conviction and self-belief. I see these findings as a call to action for anyone who doubts his or her ability to exercise at a moderate intensity to flip the script in your head and stop telling yourself that you're “unathletic.”
We all have varying degrees of athletic ability, which will evolve across our lifespan. As an example, at one point in my life, I could run farther and faster than just about anybody I knew. That is no longer the case. When I run at a "tonic level" these days, just about everybody on the jogging trail zooms past me. But, I could care less. Even though I am slow as molasses, exercise still makes me feel really good. And I still consider myself somewhat "athletic" even though onlookers might beg to differ.
Hendrik Mothes summed up the findings of his research in a statement, "Beliefs and expectations could possibly have long-term consequences, for instance on our motivation to engage in sports. 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.”
If you have any doubts about your own athletic prowess, hopefully, my personal experiences and the advice herein will encourage you to let go of any preconceived notions about "athleticism" and inspire you to seek whatever "tonic level" of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity makes you feel good.
Mothes H, Leukel C, Seelig H, Fuchs R (2017) Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise? PLoS ONE 12(6): e0180434. https://doi.org/10.1371/journal.pone.0180434
Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Han-Gue Jo, Harald Seelig, Stefan Schmidt, Reinhard Fuchs. Expectations affect psychological and neurophysiological benefits even after a single bout of exercise. Journal of Behavioral Medicine, 2016; DOI: 10.1007/s10865-016-9781-3