Think yourself thinner?

Times Staff Writer

LAZY, shiftless couch potatoes of the world, here’s something to crow about. You may be able to enhance what little exercise you get, just by happily pondering the value of it.

In a novel investigation of the placebo effect and exercise, psychology researchers from Harvard University found that hard-working hotel housekeepers who were tutored on the fitness value of their tasks experienced marked health improvements. Within four weeks of learning that the physical demands of their daily tasks provided good exercise, the 44 room attendants lost an average of 2 pounds, lowered their blood pressure by almost 10% and logged statistically meaningful reductions in body mass index, body-fat percentage and waist-to-hip ratio, compared with the 40 housekeepers in the uninformed group.

Members of the informed group also perceived themselves as getting significantly more exercise than they had before, even though their workload and recreational exercise levels, as well as diet, remained constant.


Not everyone is buying the results.

“My first thought was, ‘When are they publishing it, April 1?’ ” says Patrick O'Neil, director of the Weight Management Center at the Medical University of South Carolina. “And I’m a clinical psychologist,” he adds. “These are my people.”

Lead author Alia Crum, now a predoctoral student at Yale University, acknowledges the provocative nature of the study, which is one of very few to test a placebo effect in exercise.

“It’s funny,” she says of the report, published in this month’s issue of Psychological Science. “Initially everyone was trying to discount it, saying, ‘Well, they just exercised more,’ because we have pretty firm notions of how to lose weight, and this is counter to those ideas.” But the results are not all that incongruent with studies on the placebo effect.

“We get stuck in the notion that you’ll lose a pound for every 3,500 calories -- that weight loss is just a matter of what goes in and what goes out -- and we forget about all the other components that might be involved, like our mind-sets,” she says.

O'Neil believes the findings can be chalked up to something much simpler. “These results are more readily explained by the fact that the people in the informed group received more information related to health and exercise,” which led to undetected changes in activity level, he says.

Dr. Harvey Simon, associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School and author of “The No Sweat Exercise Plan,” believes in the power of the mind and the strength of the placebo effect, but suggests that in this case the most likely culprit is a change in the women’s diet.

“It’s not a hard trick to lose 2 pounds in a month with a change in diet,” he says, pointing out that the study did not closely track what the women were eating.

“If they’re motivated, if they feel they’re healthier and doing well, it wouldn’t be surprising if they cut down on their calories a little bit,” he says.

Simon was more impressed by the drop in blood pressure. “If people are mentally feeling better and healthier, there could well be a psychological effect.”

Crum acknowledges that there’s no way to know for certain whether the attendants, after hearing of the health benefits of the tasks they were doing, might have been unconsciously doing things a little differently, such as putting more “oomph” into their work.

But co-author Ellen Langer, a psychology professor and Crum’s faculty advisor at Harvard, bristles at the notion that the results could be accounted for by changes in behavior that simply flew under the methodological radar.

Langer is author of 200 research articles and six books and a noted expert in an area known as “mindfulness,” which, simply put, is mentally focusing on what is happening in the moment. Langer believes that the act of being mindful can promote health and well-being.

Research suggests that “we have more control over our health and well-being than we realize,” she says, “and the bottom line is that the way to achieve this is by increasing our mindfulness” to the tasks at hand.

To those who eschew exercise, the implications are obvious.

The next time your fitness-happy friends start lecturing all misty-eyed about the importance of physical exercise, just shoo them away, think of the benefits of using that ThighMaster sitting under your bed since the Clinton administration and kick back.