The Exercise Slacker Factor: How Self-Talk Can Add to Life Expectancy


Healthy Living – July 25, 2017
David Prescott, PhD – Acadia Hospital
Self-Talk, Exercise, and Life Expectancy: Recent psychology research suggests that our self-talk, or perception of ourselves, can have a powerful effect on our chances of developing chronic illness or health problems.  Researchers studied people who viewed themselves as “slackers” in terms of exercise, even if in reality, their exercise habits were pretty good. They compared these self-proclaimed ‘slackers’ with people whose exercise habits were pretty much the same, but who did not use this kind of self-talk.  The researchers found that if you view yourself as an exercise slacker, even if your exercise habits are reasonably good, your life expectancy is shorter than people who view themselves as doing pretty well.  
This particular study was conducted for over 20 years, and the researchers found that people who viewed themselves as slackers died 71% sooner than those who did not. This shortened life expectancy occurred in spite of both groups actually exercising about the same amount, and having similar health status, body mass, and heart health.  
Why Does Self-Perception Matter So Much?  How could it be that people who exercise about the same amount as those around them die sooner simply because they believe they don’t measure up to their peers?  Psychologists are not sure, but one possibility is the “placebo” effect (the belief that you are getting something positive actually induces positive changes in the body. A second idea is that people who view themselves as slackers eventually see their exercise habits drop off because they think they aren’t doing as well as they should.
The Power of Our Self-Talk: Psychologists and mental health experts have long understood the power of our inner dialogue on mental health conditions such as depression and anxiety.  The things we say about ourselves to ourselves play a significant role in the development and maintenance of some of the most common psychological problems. 
For example, think about what goes immediately through your mind when you hear your boss or teacher call your name from behind. Is your first reaction “Oh no – what have I done wrong now?”, or do you think “I’ll bet they have some good news!” The first type of reaction sets off your stress response and may push your emotions towards anxiety or depression. Changing your self-talk is an important counseling strategy for managing your moods.
How Can You Begin to Change Your Self Talk About Exercise and Health?  Regardless of whether or not you view yourself as a slacker in some area of your life, it is psychologically helpful to develop the habit of positive and balanced self-talk. Here are some tips:
  • Define what is reasonable and important to you: Try not to fall into the trap of letting other people, advertisements, or social media define your goals. In terms of exercise, identify what you think is reasonable based on logic and sound advice from a health professional.
  • Focus on what you did do, not what you did not do:  Our self-talk often focuses on what we were unable to do, but discounts what we did do.  Stay with the facts:  if you exercised for 20 minutes, you exercised 20 minutes. It is as simple as that.    
  • Differentiate enjoyment from achievement: Our expectations for ourselves can get focused on achieving a goal rather than enjoyment of an activity.  Notice what you enjoy rather than what you accomplish.  With exercise, try to find something that is inherently enjoyable for you rather than what you “ought” to do.
  • Because someone does more doesn’t mean you didn’t do enough: There will always be people who do more of almost everything.   And, our beliefs about what other people do for exercise are often flat out wrong. Avoid the trap of telling yourself that, “everyone does more than I do.”  
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