5 Ways To Think Yourself Thin: The Harvard Study That'll Shock You

It really is as easy as just thinking about it.

Last updated on Apr 11, 2023

fit woman holding coffee overlooking landscape puhhha / Shutterstock

I talk (and write, and think!) a lot about mindfulness. It can help you feel happier; it can help you become better at everything; it can make you eat less; it can help you control menstruation and digestion. 

And it can even help you lose weight — just by thinking. You don't have to change anything else about your behavior. And here's how:

In 2010, Harvard psychologist Ellen Langer had a crazy idea: that exercise and health outcomes could be affected by your mindset. To test it, she divided 84 female room attendants (hotel maids) from seven different hotels, into one of two groups.


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In a study about "health and happiness in the workplace," the informed group received information about the benefits of exercise and were informed that their housekeeping work satisfied the CDC's recommendations for an active lifestyle (at least 30 minutes of physical exercise per day).


They were told that exercise doesn't have to be hard or painful to be good for you; that it's simply a matter of moving your muscles and burning calories. They also learned specific details about average calorie expenditure for different activities, such as:

  • Changing linens for 15 minutes burns 40 calories
  • Vacuuming for 15 minutes burns 50 calories
  • Cleaning bathrooms for 15 minutes burns 60 calories

And, therefore, these women were clearly meeting, even exceeding, the Surgeon General's recommendations.

The control group received only the health information (benefits of exercise, CDC recommendations). At the conclusion of the study, they then received information about exercise and housekeeping.

All participants completed a pre-and post-study questionnaire of self-reported exercise, substance use, and diet. Then the experimenters measured their weight, body fat percentage, body mass index (BMI), waist-to-hip ratio (WHR), and blood pressure (BP).


​And what happened next shocked the world of psychology:

There was no behavior change in either group. But, four weeks after the intervention, the women in the informed group perceived themselves to be getting significantly more exercise than before. And their weight, body fat percentage, BMI, WHR, and BP all decreased.

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Mindfulness. And, perhaps, the placebo effect. Which totally makes sense, right?

After all, studies have shown that perceived health is a better predictor of mortality than actual health.

Other studies have found that people who do an exercise program they believe was designed to improve psychological well-being, show greater boosts in self-esteem than people who do the same exercise program without that information — even though both groups showed similar fitness gains.


So, what does this mean for you?

Well, for one thing, the benefits of your exercise program are at least a little due to the placebo effect. But that's OK; the placebo effect is very powerful and real. It's real (and widely accepted) enough that it must be accounted for in clinical drug testing.

But it also means that your mindset mediates the connection between exercise and health — that you may not be reaping the full mental and physical benefits of the "exercise" you do each day, but that, with some mental practice, you can totally lower your BMI, blood pressure, etc.

Here are the 5 best ways to think yourself thin:

1. Start by putting down your phone

(My smartphone only made me less cool, anyway.)


2. Think about your posture

As I learned recently from a local tai chi expert, good posture is surprisingly hard (and often overlooked) work. So, next time you find yourself sitting at your desk or waiting in line, think about all those tiny muscles that keep your back straight. Think about how you're keeping your ears over your shoulders, your shoulders over your hips, and (if you're standing) your hips over your knees.

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3. Next time you're washing dishes after a (mindfully eaten) meal, think about the weight of the plates, pots, and pans in your hands

Think about the way it feels in your pecs and your biceps as you scrub.

4. If you squat to pee (or poop) when you're using a public toilet, that's kind of like doing a wall sit

It strengthens your quads and it's good for your colon, too. (Apparently, it's also an awesome way to give birth, but this is outside my area of expertise.)


5. As you walk your dog through the neighborhood, or to a coffee shop near your work, think about how you move

Think about squeezing your glutes as you walk. What does it feel like? Pay attention to the grade. 

When you walk uphill, you work your glutes and calves extra hard. But going downhill is a challenge, too. In order to cushion your knees from hard impact and keep your speed under control, you have to activate your hamstrings with every step. (If you tend to plop and make a lot of noise when you walk downhill, you're probably not using your hamstrings enough.)

Another way to stay mindful about your walking and climbing is to hop on the wearable technology bandwagon. I bought a Striiv Play recently, and it's ... OK. I picked it because I wanted something that could clip on, not something I'd have to wear around my wrist.


And if you're interested in a fitness tracker, there are watches that will give you information about step count, but also about how you're sleeping, your heart rate, etc.

And, obviously, next time you do any kind of housework, think about the awesome women in Langer's famous study.

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Eva Glasrud is a psychologist and education consultant at Paved With Verbs. She also runs The Happy Talent, a blog about social and leisure skill development.