Mind Over Muscle: The Surprising Power of the Exercise Placebo Effect

Summary: If a person believes an exercise program has been optimized and created specifically for them, the regime will have a positive effect, regardless of the content of the program. Researchers say the placebo effect has health benefits when it comes to exercise.

Source: University of Agder

You can get a better effect from your training if you believe that the training program you are following has been put together especially for you, according to Kolbjørn Andreas Lindberg, a research fellow at the University of Agder in Norway.

“If you believe that the training program you are following has been optimized for you, that in itself will have an effect, regardless of the content of the program. It is exactly the same as the placebo effect we know from medicine,” says Lindberg who has conducted a pilot study on the effect this can have on training.

The results have been published in the journal Scientific Reports.

Have you ever taken paracetamol to relieve a pounding headache, only to feel better even before the pill has had a chance to work? Then you have experienced the placebo effect.

Placebo is the name for the somewhat strange phenomenon that occurs when medication or treatment works better if you believe it will work.

“The placebo effect has been studied for over 70 years, but looking at it in the context of exercise research is new,” Lindberg says.

Placebo drugs are an important part of clinical research. In so-called blind trials, the active drug and placebo are administered to patients according to a code, so neither the researchers nor the subjects know who has been given what.

In this way, researchers can objectively evaluate the effect of the medication.

Forty people participated in the study by Lindberg and his colleagues. After a series of physical tests in the laboratory, they were all given different training programs.

Half of the participants were told that the training program they received had been specially adapted to them based on the tests that were carried out. This was the intervention group.

The other half, the control group, did not receive such a message.

The participants were all given training programs that varied with regard to weight and the number of repetitions, but on average the programs of the two groups were similar.

After completing the eight to 10 weeks of training, the participants were again tested in the laboratory.

“It turned out that those who thought they had received an individually adapted training program got better results on average than the control group. Even though the two groups had followed the same program on average,” Lindberg says.

The researchers found differences between the two groups, especially with the squat exercise and general muscle thickness.

This shows a woman exercising
This can be a problem when new training approaches appear to offer good results. Image is in the public domain

“It may be a little surprising that placebo also applies to exercise. But when you think about it, it makes sense,” Lindberg says.

“There were indications that the participants who thought they were following a personal program trained a little more and with a higher intensity. Many such small factors can affect the result.”

He also believes that the testing itself may have had an impact on the result: The intervention group may have felt that they had to perform since the program was supposed to give them results.

“The placebo effect is largely overlooked when researching the results of exercise. It can be difficult to conduct a blind study when comparing training twice a week with training four times a week,” he says.

This can be a problem when new training approaches appear to offer good results.

“There is good reason to be skeptical of new fancy training approaches that are hyped up in the media. Especially considering that virtually no such studies have been controlled for the placebo effect,” Lindberg says.

About this exercise and psychology research news

Author: Press Office
Source: University of Agder
Contact: Press Office – University of Agder
Image: The image is in the public domain

Original Research: Open access.
The effects of being told you are in the intervention group on training results: a pilot study” by Kolbjørn Lindberg et al. Scientific Reports


The effects of being told you are in the intervention group on training results: a pilot study

Little is known about the placebo effects when comparing training interventions. Consequently, we investigated whether subjects being told they are in the intervention group get better training results compared to subjects being told they are in a control group. Forty athletes (male: n = 31, female: n = 9) completed a 10-week training intervention (age: 22 ± 4 years, height: 183 ± 10 cm, and body mass: 84 ± 15 kg).

After randomization, the participants were either told that the training program they got was individualized based on their force–velocity profile (Placebo), or that they were in the control group (Control). However, both groups were doing the same workouts.

Measurements included countermovement jump (CMJ), 20-m sprint, one-repetition maximum (1RM) back-squat, a leg-press test, ultrasonography of muscle-thickness (m. rectus femoris), and a questionnaire (Stanford Expectations of Treatment Scale) (Younger et al. in Clin Trials 9(6):767–776, 2012).

Placebo increased 1RM squat more than Control (5.7 ± 6.4% vs 0.9 ± 6.9%, [0.26 vs 0.02 Effect Size], Bayes Factor: 5.1 [BF10], p = 0.025). Placebo had slightly higher adherence compared to control (82 ± 18% vs 72 ± 13%, BF10: 2.0, p = 0.08).

Importantly, the difference in the 1RM squat was significant after controlling for adherence (p = 0.013). No significant differences were observed in the other measurements.

The results suggest that the placebo effect may be meaningful in sports and exercise training interventions. It is possible that ineffective training interventions will go unquestioned in the absence of placebo-controlled trials.

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