Mindset matters 2!

This article is the second in a series about how our attitudes, beliefs and mindset can affect our health. There is a fascinating and growing body of evidence that there is a much stronger relationship between our minds and our bodies than perhaps we have been lead to believe. I hope that these articles stimulate some new thoughts and ideas for you, or perhaps shore up what you already knew. I’ve included a list of further reading at the end of each article too, for those who want to look into this in more detail.

Okay, last time I introduced the idea that your mindset can have a big influence on your health and body. Now it’s time to have a look at how this can work with regards to your fitness and nutrition. But first, let me recap one point - when I’m talking about the effect mindset has on your health, I’m not just talking about feeling a bit more positive. I mean literal, measurable changes to aspects of your physiology like your hormone levels, your blood pressure, and your response to medications.

This is pretty amazing! If we can understand and use this phenomenon to our advantage, wouldn’t that be great!

This time I’m going to talk about how your mindset may affect how your body responds to:

  • Exercise

  • Food 

So let’s talk about fitness.

A study was conducted into the fitness of a group of women working as cleaners in hotels in the US. Now, cleaning is constant physical work, but when asked, most of these people stated at the outset that they didn’t think they got any regular exercise. So here’s what was done: at the beginning of this study a whole range of measurements were taken - weight, body fat percentage, waist-to-hip ratio, body mass index, and blood pressure. Then one month later the same things were tested again. The catch was that one half of the group was given information that the physical demands of their job meant that they were getting a good amount of exercise (which, by the way, was technically true). The other half was not given this information. Can you guess what happened?

Okay, let’s pause briefly. During this study all the participants reported that they didn’t do any extra exercise outside of what they were performing before the study. Nor did they report changing their dietary habits. But the possible problem is this: these things weren’t monitored by a third party as the study was running, so technically it’s possible that the group who got fitter were sneakily popping down to the gym in their free time, eating significantly less, and lying through their teeth about both… yeah, I don’t think so, either. While it’s possible, it’s very unlikely that habits like these would change in the time allowed for the study. However, ideally, more studies will be conducted where the participants’ activity levels and diet are externally monitored.

The little things? The little moments? They aren’t little.
— Jon Kabat-Zinn

So, back to the results: the group that was given the information about their activity levels demonstrated improvements in ALL of the measured factors. That’s right: there were improvements in their body weight, body fat percentage, BMI, waist-to-hip ratio, and blood pressure! (They also reported increased satisfaction with their work.) The other group showed NO change. As I said earlier, neither group changed their physical activity or diet at all. Yet simply by changing one group’s attitudes towards the physical activity they were engaging in, their bodies showed an increased positive response to that activity!

There are some really exciting implications arising from this study. It would appear that how you regard your physical activity may affect the benefit you get from it. Simply by turning their attention to the physical activity they were engaged in, the women in the study described above saw physiological changes that weren’t explained by changes in behaviour. 

They simply were more mindful of their activity levels. 

That’s all.

Once again, I’m not suggesting you can simply think yourself fit! Sitting on the couch and visualising bigger biceps probably won’t get you the results you want. But turning attention to the activity you’re already engaged in, and being mindful about any new exercise program you begin, could help you in your pursuit of better health and fitness.

With that in mind, let’s talk about food! Specifically, let’s talk about hunger.

When you have an empty stomach a hormone called grehlin is released that travels to your brain and tells you that you’re hungry. After you have eaten, your grehlin levels drop and the hunger goes away. Given that the vast majority of grehlin is released by your stomach, not your brain, you’d think it relies purely on the contents of your stomach, right?

Not so fast. A test was performed where people attended a milkshake tasting twice. Once they were given a “Sensi-Shake” which claimed “guilt-free satisfaction” and less calories, another time they received a shake termed “Indulgence” which claimed “decadence you deserve” and a huge whack of calories! The first shake resulted in a significantly smaller reduction in grehlin levels than the second. In other words, the lower-calorie shake left people hungrier, as you would expect. 

Here’s the kicker, though: yep, you guessed it, the shake was exactly the same both times. Only the perception of those consuming the shake changed, and hunger was curbed much more when people believed they were drinking a shake loaded with calories. Interesting!

The mind is just like a muscle – the more you exercise it, the stronger it gets and the more it can expand.
— Idowu Koyenikan

Does this mean that how you regard the food you eat is going to change the way your body responds to it? I should mention that grehlin does much more than just make you hungry. There seems to be a relationship between grehlin and insulin - when grehlin goes up, insulin goes down, and vice versa (it’s all a little more complicated than that, but you get the picture - they’re related). So it would appear that grehlin is involved in the regulation of our energy systems and the uptake by our cells of the sugars floating in our bloodstream. So if we can change our grehlin levels just by the way we regard our food, we are influencing much more than just how hungry we are! 

So, if we give ourselves a hard time for eating junk, does that mean we are actually setting ourselves up to get fat? Perhaps it is not just important that we eat healthy food in appropriate amounts, but also that we have a healthy relationship with our food! Once again, mindfulness of what and how we eat may be hugely beneficial!

A lot of what I’ve talked about in this article is drawn from the work of Dr Alia Crum, currently of Stanford University. If you’re interested in more about her work, check out her TED talk here.

Wouldn’t it be great if we could to think ourselves young? Next time I’m going to look at our mindset and how we age!