How Active Do You Think You Are? Why That Matters

by Greg Daugherty Health Writer

Staying physically active is important for your health — no surprise there. But new research suggests that how active you simply think you are, compared with other people your age, can make a big difference too.

Stanford University researchers found that people who believed they were less physically active than their peers were 71 percent more likely to die during the study’s time frame than people who thought they were more active. And here’s the surprising part: That held true even if both groups were getting the same amount of physical activity.

The Stanford study, published July 20, 2017, in Health Psychology, builds on earlier research showing a link between how people perceive their level of physical activity and the health benefits they ultimately derive from it.

One takeaway: Don’t discount the activity you’re already getting.

The power of perception

Consider, for example, a 2007 study of hotel room attendants, which the Stanford researchers describe in their article. Though cleaning hotel rooms is a physically demanding job, the people who do it may not see it as “exercise.” Yet, after researchers told a group of attendants that their work actually met the requirements for daily physical activity, not only did their perceptions change, but they also began to see “significant physiological health improvements including reductions in weight, body fat, and blood pressure.”

The new Stanford study went a step further, looking at a diverse population of more than 61,000 men and women who took part in three major surveys going back as far as 1990.

The surveys asked a series of questions about their recent physical activities and also whether they considered themselves more, less, or about as active compared with others their age. The researchers then determined whether those men and women were still alive at the end of the study period, in 2011.

Even after the researchers controlled for subjects’ health, socioeconomic status, and actual level of physical activity, they wrote, “perceptions of physical activity relative to others were associated with statistically and clinically significant changes in mortality risk.”

Still no free pass

None of this is an excuse for extra sofa time, of course. Telling yourself you’re getting enough exercise is no substitute for actually getting it.

In fact, the authors note, “positive perceptions alone are unlikely to promote health and might even have adverse effects if they discourage individuals from engaging in healthy behavior.”

On the other hand, if you’re making the bed, mowing the lawn, taking the stairs, or walking the dog, remember that all of that activity counts too.

Greg Daugherty
Meet Our Writer
Greg Daugherty

Greg Daugherty is an award-winning writer and editor specializing in retirement topics. He has served as editor-in-chief of Reader’s Digest New Choices retirement magazine, executive editor of Consumer Reports, where he wrote a popular column about preparing for retirement, and senior editor at Money. His work has appeared in Money, Smithsonian, Parade, The New York Times, and NextAve.org, among others.