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Housekeepers, Health & The Power of Belief

By Health & Wellness Editor Kathy Whelan

Who would have guessed that hotel housekeepers held the keys not only to rooms but to understanding the connection between our minds and our bodies? During a recent hotel stay, I recalled a remarkable study showing that our bodies produce different health results when we employ different mindsets.

In 2007, Harvard undergraduate Alia Crum worked on this study with psychology professor Ellen Langer. They recruited more than eighty female housekeepers from seven hotels. At the beginning, few of these women thought their work amounted to exercise. Crum and Langer divided the housekeepers into two groups, informing half that by doing their jobs, they met the Surgeon General’s physical activity recommendations. The others were not given this information. Four weeks later, although neither group reported changes in job duties or other activities, the informed group showed decreases in weight, blood pressure, body fat, waist-to-hip ratio, and body mass index. It seemed the housekeepers’ beliefs about their work had influenced their health outcomes.

This is related to the placebo effect by which the brain convinces the body that a fake treatment is the real thing, thus stimulating healing. Placebos – sugar pills, for example – are used in clinical drug trials; to be judged effective, a medication must outperform a placebo, which accounts for improvement in, on average, 35% of participants. The housekeeper study demonstrated that the placebo effect is not limited to sham drugs or procedures. Beliefs – our mindsets – about exercise combine with exercise to influence its physiological results.

Now a tenured Associate Professor of Psychology at Stanford, Alia Crum has studied the influence of mindset in other contexts. Another of her intriguing studies is the “milkshake study,” where all participants were fed a milkshake twice, one week apart. One time the shake was labeled as a rich treat, containing plenty of sugar and fat, while the other time it was labeled as having no fat or added sugar. Although the two shakes were actually identical, consumption of the “treat” shake resulted in a threefold greater drop in ghrelin – the “hunger hormone” – than consumption of the other shake. Again, different mindsets brought about different physiological results. Other work on the effect of mindsets has focused on stress, cancer, food allergies and drug treatments.

The varying results from different mindsets become more understandable when we realize that our mindsets do not reflect an objective reality. Instead, they are core beliefs or assumptions we hold about certain areas of life. These mindsets come from various sources: our upbringing, culture, media, and influential others. They can be useful in helping us organize and simplify the world. Sometimes, though, they hold us back; when they do, we can consciously change them.

The first step in doing so is recognizing we have a certain mindset. For example, do you believe healthy foods are unappetizing and depriving and that unhealthy foods are delicious and pleasurable to eat? (When we require children to finish a healthy dinner before having dessert, do we suggest that dinner is to be endured and dessert to be enjoyed?) Do you believe intelligence or athletic ability is fixed rather than malleable? Do you believe cancer is always a catastrophe or that living alone dooms you to loneliness?

After identifying a particular mindset, ask yourself whether or not it is serving you well. I remember believing in 2016 that I was too old to become a health coach, that my age would bar me from a coaching program. My husband laughed at me, causing me to realize I had no objective basis for that notion. Had I not changed it, my mindset about age would have hindered my personal growth, an important area of whole health.

If you uncover an unhelpful mindset, find ways to adopt one that serves you better. Rather than simply thinking positively in a general way, this involves looking at specific beliefs and attempting to reconstruct them. For example, can you see stress as your ally rather than your enemy as you prepare for a challenge, see your parents’ poor health history as incentivizing rather than debilitating, or see the side effects of your medication as a sign it is working rather than a reason to quit? As long as your new mindset is grounded in reality, it will both motivate you to take different actions and help you produce different results.

As we continue to explore the role of the mind in healing the body, consider conducting your own study and see the effects of a new mindset in your life.

Kathy Whelan left a successful Wall Street legal career when her doctor warned that her lifestyle of overwork and lack of self-care were not sustainable. She had always been interested in the relationship between lifestyle and health, so eventually Kathy returned to her undergraduate alma mater Duke University to become a certified Integrative Health Coach, with additional training in Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction. Integrative Health Coaching is based in the neuroscience of behavioral change. Kathy calls it the missing link in addressing individual and national health crises.  It’s the foundation of her unique health and wellness coaching for corporate and individual clients. Kathy’s work has been featured in media including The Boston Globe. Learn more at www.whelanwellness.com

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