Early in her career, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer, PhD, asked a group of men in their 70s to travel back in time. They spent five days on a retreat in New Hampshire, living as they would have lived two decades earlier—the TV shows they watched, the magazines they read, the clothes they wore and the events they discussed all were from that earlier time. Result: These men didn’t just relive their younger lives…their bodies seemed to become younger and healthier in measurable ways—their manual dexterity, strength, hearing and vision all improved. They even looked younger.

Sounds like an episode of The ­Twilight Zone, right? But the experiment was rooted in a scientifically established idea—that the mind and body are best understood as a single unit. So wherever you put the mind, you also are putting the body. Thus, changing how we think can influence our health and fitness in meaningful ways. Consider the placebo. It is well-established that placebos can have measurable effects on health even though a placebo itself doesn’t provide any health advantage. The change is ­created by the mind of the patient who takes the placebo.

Bottom Line Personal asked Dr. Langer—whose new book is The Mindful Body—to share some research-backed ways in which we can put the mind-body connection to use to improve our own health and fitness…

Reframe your daily activity as “exercise.” We all know that exercising is good for our health. What’s surprising, though, is that how much exercise we get isn’t the only factor that matters. How much we believe we get can have a meaningful effect on our health, too.

In one of Dr. Langer’s studies, researchers encouraged a group of hotel chambermaids to view their everyday work as exercise. The chambermaids were informed of the similarities between their workplace efforts and the workouts provided by exercise equipment. Result: These chambermaids lost weight and experienced reduced blood pressure compared with chambermaids who were not instructed to think of their work as exercise. The chambermaids who reframed their jobs as exercise didn’t work any longer or harder—the physical benefits apparently occurred because their minds believed they were exercising.

Additional research conducted at Stanford University corroborated these results and further found that people who don’t perceive themselves as physically active have significantly higher mortality rates than those who do perceive themselves to be active—regardless of how active they actually are.

Takeaway: Whenever you do housework or yardwork…walk from your vehicle to a shop or up a set of stairs…or engage in any other daily activity that involves physical movement or effort, tell yourself, This is exercise.

Imagine yourself eating to lose weight. Dieters often try to avoid thinking about food. But counterintuitively, if done properly, thinking about food can reduce the desire to eat. The key is to imagine yourself eating lots of the specific foods that most tempt you. Real and imagined eating can be surprisingly similar to the brain. In one study, researchers at Carnegie Mellon University asked participants to imagine eating cheese. Those who imagined eating the most cheese ate less actual cheese when it was offered to them—they already felt fairly full because of their imagined eating.

Takeaway: When you feel like snacking or eating an unhealthy food, try imagining yourself eating that food. Make these imaginary binges as detailed as possible—if you’re tempted by pizza, for example, imagine not only the taste, but the smell, the warmth of the cheese and the feel of the crust in your mouth.

Similar: When it isn’t possible to exercise, imagine yourself exercising. Researchers at Cleveland Clinic’s Lerner Research Institute found that people who regularly imagine themselves exercising a specific muscle experience improvements in the strength of that muscle, though not as much as if they had actually exercised it. Imaginary exercise could be useful when you’re recovering from an illness or injury, for example.

Don’t allow arbitrary health-related “borderlines” to endanger your health. Say two people receive virtually identical results on a glycated hemoglobin test—also known as the A1C test, a measurement of blood sugar levels—during their physicals. One is measured at 5.6%…the other at 5.7%—a difference so small that it’s medically meaningless. Yet the person who receives the 5.7% is more likely to develop diabetes in coming years than the person who got the 5.6%—in fact, much more so than that tiny difference would suggest.

Why? The line between “normal” and “prediabetic” is drawn here, so the person who is measured at 5.7% is told he/she is prediabetic, while the person measured at 5.6% is not. This blood sugar difference is medically inconsequential, but the difference between being labeled “prediabetic” or “normal” is meaningful psychologically. People told that they were “prediabetic” went on to become sick…those who were initially no different continued to be normal. This is called the borderline effect—patients who fall on opposite sides of somewhat arbitrary medical lines often have very different health outcomes due to the psychological impact of the diagnoses and labels.

Takeaway: When you receive a medical diagnosis, remind yourself that it’s likely an expression of probability, not your destiny. Ask the doctor for further information about what the diagnosis means…what percentage of people who receive it avoid the fate that it seems to foretell…and what actions you can take to improve your odds of doing so.

Control chronic health conditions by being mindful of symptom variability. When people have chronic health problems, they believe those problems are unrelenting. They might think, I’m stressed all the time…or This back pain never lets up, for example. But it’s more likely that their symptoms rise and fall—they just notice them most when they’re at their worst. Becoming aware of symptom variability can reduce overall suffering. One study by Harvard University and University of Haifa found that pregnant women had easier pregnancies if they became mindful of the variability of their morning sickness and other sensations. Harvard studies using this attention to symptom variability with chronic pain, Parkinson’s, multiple sclerosis and arthritis also had successful outcomes.

Takeaway: Set your smartphone to beep or vibrate several times each day during waking hours. When it does, jot down how much the chronic symptom is affecting you at that moment…what you’re doing…what you’ve recently done…where you are…and who you’re with. When the symptom is particularly good or bad, take extra time to consider what’s different about your life at that moment. Patterns will begin to emerge—perhaps you feel worse when you’ve been inactive…just eaten a certain food…or are interacting with an unpleasant colleague. You might be able to use the patterns to make lifestyle and diet adjustments that minimize the symptoms…and even if you can’t, your increased awareness that your symptoms are not terrible all the time likely will help you feel somewhat better.

Reshape long tasks to reduce the dangers of fatigue. Fatigue is a common cause of highway accidents, workplace injuries and other dangers. But fatigue is not primarily the result of reaching our physical limits. It is governed in large part by our mental perception of how far we have progressed with a lengthy task.

When Harvard researchers examined at what point during a long drive fatigue sets in, they found that it is almost always somewhere between the drive’s one-half and three-quarter mark—regardless of the length of the drive. Someone driving four hours is likely to start to feel fatigued between the second and third hours…someone driving 10 hours won’t feel fatigued until the fifth hour or later. Researchers found comparable results with studies of lengthy, dull mental and physical tasks—people tend to feel fatigue not after a certain amount of time, as they would if physical or mental limits were being reached…but after a certain percentage of the task has been completed—usually between half and three-quarters. That suggests that fatigue is related to our expectations—which means we might be able to overcome it by mentally reframing long tasks.

Takeaway: Convert long tasks into smaller sections, each featuring a different form of mental engagement. Example: On a long drive, spend the first third listening to an engaging audio book…the second third playing a mental game with car mates…and the third singing along with the radio.

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