According to the World Health Organization (WHO), physical inactivity is the fourth-leading risk factor for global mortality, causing an estimated 3.2 million deaths around the world annually. Readers of this blog need no convincing that it’s important to be active every day. But is spending more time on it enough to reduce the risk of early death? Not necessarily. How we perceive this activity turns out to be just as important. We learn of this from the authors of an intriguing study in Health Psychology devoted to physical activity and mortality.
A lot of clinical research tries its best to find the true effects of a treatment above and beyond the placebo effect – that is, the benefits that can arise purely from a person’s expectations that an intervention will be helpful. A new study in Health Psychology takes a different approach: instead of always seeing the placebo effect as “a nuisance variable with mysterious impact”, argue Lauren Howe and her colleagues at Stanford University, we should try to find out more about how to enhance it, and how to diminish its harmful twin, the nocebo effect (when negative expectations can lead to harmful effects). To this end, the researchers examined the possible moderating influence of a physician’s demeanour, finding that the placebo effect is enhanced by the impression of warmth and competence.
Howe and her team write: “Among the many demands of a career in medicine, physicians have been increasingly directed to build rapport with their patients (e.g., by exhibiting empathy). This research suggests a compelling reason for why physicians should pay attention to these psychological and social forces: They can impact physiological health outcomes.”
“In the dark, in the quiet, in the lonely stillness, the aggrieved struggle to rescue sleep from vigilance.” This arresting sentence introduces a new review of insomnia in Behaviour Research and Therapy that addresses a troubling fact observed in sleep labs across the world: poor sleep is not sufficient to make people consider themselves to have the condition… and poor sleep may not even be necessary. The paper, by Kenneth Lichstein at the University of Alabama, explores the implications of “Insomnia Identity”: how it contributes to health problems, and may be an obstacle to recovery.
Spreading information about the benefits of exercise – including how it reduces the risk of chronic diseases and improves mental health and wellbeing, from sleep quality to self-esteem – hasn’t been enough to change people’s behaviour. Only 30 to 40 per cent of adults in the UK say they get the recommended amount of physical activity per week, and this figure drops to just 5 per cent when using accelerometers to measure movement. It’s a similar story even for people who have made the effort to join a gym – in a recent poll, a third of members reported visiting their gym three times a year or less. It seems we need to get more creative to persuade people to get active.
To test out some innovative psychological approaches, a new study published in the Journal of Behavioral and Experimental Economics selected 181 infrequent gym-goers at the University of West Chester, who went on average less than once a week before the experiment. All students at the university have free access to the fitness centre, and their attendance is automatically recorded when they swipe in.
Feeling positive emotions is good for your physical health, right? There’s certainly evidence in support of the idea. But it’s mostly come from studies of people living in Western countries. Now a study published in Psychological Science, concludes that for people in Japan, it may not be the case.
While positive emotions, like happiness, are seen as a good thing in the US, UK, and elsewhere in Europe, the picture is different in east Asia: they aren’t seen being as necessarily desirable, and negative emotions aren’t considered to be all that bad. As the researchers, led by Jiah Yoo at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, US, write in their introduction: “No study to date has directly compared the biological correlates of positive affect across cultures.”
When you’re in the coffee shop and you watch your hand pick up the muffin and place it on your tray, how much of this was down to the situation, and how much to do with your (lack of) willpower or your long-term intentions? A new study in the British Journal of Health Psychology compared these influences and found that momentary cues, such as seeing someone else snacking, were more strongly associated with how much people snacked than their own baseline psychological traits and intentions.
Your body’s immune system normally fights illness or injury, but when it’s overactive over a prolonged period of time, the consequences can be harmful. “Chronic systemic inflammation” (marked by raised levels of pro-inflammatory cytokines through the body) has been linked to a wide range of physical and mental health problems, including heart disease, diabetes and depression. One cause is a poor lifestyle, involving little exercise and an unhealthy diet. Anthony Ong, at Cornell University, US, and his team were interested in whether our emotional lives might play a role too. Their new research, published in the journal Emotion, found that people with lower systemic inflammation didn’t simply report more happiness, rather they experienced a greater variety of positive emotions every day.
After chemotherapy treatment, many patients say their mind has been affected. For example they describe symptoms such as feeling confused, memory problems and difficulty concentrating – a phenomenon that has been dubbed “chemobrain” (Cancer Research UK has more information).
The causes are little understood. Are these apparent neuropsychological effects due to a direct physical effect of chemotherapy on the brain? Or could it be the stress and worry involved in chemotherapy that is responsible? Perhaps it’s both. To find out more, Mi Sook Jung at Chungnam National University in South Korea, and colleagues, conducted repeated brain scans and neuropsych tests with breast cancer patients undergoing chemo and compared them with similar cancer patients not on chemo and healthy controls. Reporting their results in Brain Imaging and Behaviour, the researchers hope a better understanding of the nature of “chemobrain” and its causes will make it possible for health professionals to offer patients better support and care.
They say that if you can laugh at it, you can live with it. Is this true? Does the ability to see the funny side of things really act like a psychological shield against stress? A series of new studies in Personality and Social Psychological Bulletin provides some tentative support for the idea. But the research also illustrates why this is such a difficult topic to study – does humour really reduce stress or is it just easier to see the funny side when you are coping well? And it’s worth remembering the serious risk that if humour is shown to be protective by psychology research – and it’s a big if – that those who suffer most from stress will be put under social pressure to help themselves by cheering up, a situation only likely to intensify their distress.
At least one in four readers of this post will die of cancer. This is a simple statistic that leads rationally thinking people to treat the possibility as very likely. And this is what many do: they try to adopt a lifestyle that minimises the risk to some degree. But how do we know what minimises and what increases this risk? Of course, by listening to experts, the best of whom are scientists who research these things. However, whenever there is disquiet brought about by uncertainty, self-titled experts come out of the woodwork. Discussion of factors increasing the risk of cancer is today not only the domain of medical doctors and psycho-oncologists, but is also engaged in by some alternative medicine proponents, pseudopsychologists, and fringe psychotherapists, whose opinions are disseminated by journalists, some more thorough than others (see myth #26 in 50 Great Myths of Popular Psychology for more background).
Among these opinions is the common claim that negative thinking, pessimism, and stress create the conditions for the cells in our body to run amok, and for cancer to develop. Similar declarations accompany therapeutic propositions for changing our way of thinking into a more positive one that will protect us from cancer, or even cure us of the disease. Should you, therefore, begin to fear the possibility of cancer if you are not prone to optimism, or – even worse – have bouts of depression?