Placebo meds... running up that hill, as the mp3 song says, may not be necessary to your health and fitness after all. The placebo effect may actually be lurking in your mind, ready to leap out at the slightest provocation and make you well!
I remember NLP innovator Richard Bandler years ago joking that he was the fellow who wanted to register the brand name 'Placebo' for a range of sugar pills that he said would transform the health of a nation overnight. He had studied and taught how to tap large chunks of the power of the mind for decades, and knew just what a force it can be.
So it was no surprise to read this week that two Harvard researchers have come to the same conclusion. Psychology professor Ellen Langer and her student, Alia Crum, decided to explore the potential placebo effect of beliefs and expectations — specifically, those about activity and health.
Using hotel housemaids, who routinely spend their entire working day bending. lifting, folding and walking, they showed on the weight scales and in contentment levels, the awesome power of suggestion.
Splitting the maids into two groups, they physically assessed each woman, then told one group that their daily work involved sufficient exercise to meet the Surgeon General's 1996 recommendations for a healthy lifestyle.
When they came back a month later, the physical measurements showed that the group aware of the health benefits of their work were in remarkably better shape than their unaware sisters.
The difference? The maids didn't realize they were getting a lot of exercise. Indeed, they didn't believe they were getting any exercise—not because they were stupid, but because it never occurred to them to think of it that way.
In fact, they had actually lost weight, improved BMI, fat distribution and systolic blood pressure. That is very important—the positive effects occurred just by changing how they thought about their day. They occurred without any change in behavior.
So, might we all get fitter and healthier if we just stopped to think about such things as walking to the bus stop as exercise? Langer entertains the possibility - and I'm sure Bandler would regard it as ancient history - but she emphasizes that the maids went through 'a true conversion from ignorance to belief'.
There is no doubt that placebos work - whether they are placebo meds or a placebo mindset - but the belief in their power must be complete.