Comparison is a thief of joy, and according to new research, a thief of health. A study published in Health Psychology claims that just thinking you are less fit in comparison to others might trim years off your life.
In 2007 Stanford psychologist Alia Crum studied hotel workers whose jobs entailed lots of walking and lifting. "These women were getting lots of exercise, but when we asked them (about it) they didn't have the mindset that their work was good exercise," Crum told NPR.
Researchers gave some staff members a presentation explaining their jobs' exercise benefits and then tracked their activity for a month. In comparison to the staffers who had not received the presentation, the women who had saw improvements in their blood pressure and body fat. Building on this research, Crum partnered with Stanford doctorate candidate Octavia Zahrt to examine the effects of this attitude decades later. They analyzed data from two large national health surveys along with a litany of metrics such as activity levels, weight and smoking status and asked participants to take a survey assessing how much they believed they were exercising compared to others their own age.
"Individuals who thought they were less active than other people their age were more likely to die, regardless of health status, body mass index, and so on," Crum said. This was true even when researchers looked at people who were roughly the same on all metrics including how much they actually exercised based on self-reporting and step-tracking data.
The results pose questions about health messaging. "If you tell people they need to get this really high level of activity or else they will have all these healthy complications and die early, you might just be instilling this negative mindset," Zahrt told NPR.