Believing In the Positive Effects of Exercise Can Boost Its Powers

believe-exercise_blogAlthough you know you’re supposed to invest time in physical activity, you may have some limiting beliefs in place. Perhaps you’ve heard people say things like, “You’ll never out-exercise what you eat,” or “The weight loss battle is won in the kitchen,” but it turns out you should be giving your step sessions and gym time more credit.

According to a recent study published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, exercise is more beneficial if you believe in its powers. Psychologists from the Department of Sport Science at the University of Freiburg had 76 young men and women exercise on a bike for 30 minutes.

Before the sweat session, however, the participants were surveyed on their initial beliefs about the effects of physical activity, their mood and facets of well-being. The researchers also measured each person’s brain activity via electroencephalogram (EEG).

The men and women were then divided into different groups, and either shown a video that touted the benefits of biking on overall health or one that did not. Then, of course, the scientists let everyone pedal.

The results showed that participants enjoyed more psychological and neurophysiological perks (“alpha-2 power”) from their bike time if they already had a positive attitude about exercise before working up a sweat. They enjoyed the exercise more, had better mood, less anxiety, and a more relaxed mental state. Theoretically, that makes each workout an easier pill to swallow, so to speak—and you’re much more likely to get off the couch for a run, or stick to a routine and lose weight.

According to lead researcher Hendrik Mothes, “our belief in how much we will benefit from physical activity has a considerable effect on our well-being” by way of “self-fulfilling prophecy.” You’ll derive more benefits from exercise if you think physical activity is extremely important.

Belief is the frame through which you view the entire experience of exercise, says Art Markman, PhD, a professor of psychology at the University of Texas, Austin, and author of the new book Brain Briefs. “If you believe that a treatment of any kind will work, it has two positive effects,” he explains. “First, it improves compliance. In this case, you stick with your exercise longer and you work harder at it. Second, it influences how you interpret what is going on. If you think exercise works, then any pain you experience is seen as a sign of the benefit of exercise. If you are skeptical, then pain may be taken as a sign that you should stop.”

If you’re struggling with belief behaviors, Markman says to focus on strides that produce even small results. “Actively work to notice the little benefits, and use those as a sign that you are making progress,” he says. “Also, spend time with other people who share your interest. The goal to exercise is contagious, so you will increase your commitment by working with others.”

Markman notes that social media can help with this—take, for example, a 2015 study from the University of Pennsylvania showing online social networks can be exercise motivators—but that it’s “easier to be influenced by people who are actually in your environment than by people you only interact with virtually.” So, find a workout buddy for your daily runs, or join a recreational sports team for some fun and fitness.

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