Want to Burn More Calories and Improve Your Health? Modify Your Words

Even altering one word or phrase can impact your well-being

By Peter M. Vishton, PhDWilliam & Mary
Edited by Kate Findley and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Did you know that the words you use can have a powerful effect not only on your emotions, but also on your physical health? Professor Vishton explains.

Woman looking confidently into gym mirror
Study participants who changed the “labeling” of their work as “exercise” then experienced improvements in weight, body fat percentage, and blood pressure—with just that change in wording for their thought process. Photo By Pressmaster / Shutterstock

Can Changing One Word Impact Health?

One study conducted by Alia Crum and Ellen Langer of Harvard University demonstrates how simply changing our words can improve our health. The study tested whether or not hotel room attendants would burn more calories if they thought of their work as exercise.

Some of the hotels were randomly assigned to the experimental condition. The researchers met with the room attendants at the experimental hotels and explained that they were interested in better understanding physical fitness in the workplace. 

They presented information about the caloric expenditures associated with different aspects of their work. For instance, for a 140-pound female, changing sheets and towels for 15 minutes burns about 40 calories. 

Vacuuming for 15 minutes burns up 60 calories. Add up eight hours of work in a given day, and it’s clear that the attendants easily exceed the Center for Disease Control’s recommendations for a proper amount of physical exercise.

The researchers also met with the room attendants in the randomly assigned control condition hotels. They explained the interest in fitness in the workplace, but they specifically did not provide the information about how their work could be described as exercise. 

Study Results

For both the experimental and control groups, a variety of physiological measures were taken—blood pressure, height, weight, and body fat percentage. They measured the waist and hip size of the attendants and calculated a waist-to-hip ratio as well. Other studies have found that this ratio is a measure of fitness related to a variety of health outcomes.

The experimenters then waited for one month and returned. The researchers collected a lot of data about the health-related habits of the attendants over the course of that month. 

The general result from these measures is that the two groups didn’t change their eating or exercise habits away from work very much. For instance, the experimental group was no more likely to start a new eating or exercise plan than the control participants.

What did change was the general fitness levels of the experimental participants. Weight, percentage of body fat, and blood pressure all dropped—without any change in behavior. 

All that changed were the words that participants would use as they thought about what they were doing at work. The participants whose fitness level changed associated their daily activities at work with burning calories. 

Power of Imagination

Other studies have found that merely imagining exercise activities—for example, lifting a weight—has positive effects on fitness and muscle strength. Those imagery effects are enhanced by semantic labeling of the activity. The study with the room attendants shows how the semantic label of “exercise” changes how your brain and in turn your body process those activities.

When the language centers of the brain are active, they modulate the activity of many other regions in your brain. Associating your everyday physical activities—working around the house and making your way through your day—with the word “exercise” enables your body to get more out of them.

Alia Crum, one of the researchers involved in the room attendant study, found that the words you use to describe eating also have an effect on your sense of satiation. Participants in her study consumed a 380-calorie milkshake. 

Half of the participants thought of it as an indulgent, 620-calorie milkshake. Others thought of it as a sensible 140-calorie milkshake. 

It was the same shake for everyone, but a different mindset about what they were consuming. The indulgent participants felt more full and satisfied than their sensible shake counterparts. 

Satiety and Language

What’s even more surprising is that the body’s response to the food was physiologically different. The intestinal cells of the indulgent participants in this study produced significantly lower levels of the hunger-related hormone called ghrelin than the sensible shake participants. 

When you do indulge—or even when you don’t—take time to celebrate your indulgence. Think about the indulgence and maybe even talk about it. Your body will respond better, appreciating the food more, which will in turn make you less likely to overeat later.

Words matter. Your own words shape you, perhaps even more than they affect anyone else. How you talk about yourself—and to yourself—can affect how your brain functions. Even the words you think—without ever saying them—affect your brain and your body all the time, whether you’re aware of these effects or not.

We all engage in an almost continuous inner monolog. Every day, thousands of words pass through our stream of consciousness. By intervening in and altering the flow of that stream of self-talk, it seems we can—often quite easily—change our behaviors, our emotions, and even our physical health.

This article was edited by Kate Findley, Writer for Wondrium Daily, and proofread by Angela Shoemaker, Proofreader and Copy Editor for Wondrium Daily.
Image of Professor Peter Vishton

Peter M. Vishton is an Associate Professor of Psychology at William & Mary. He earned his PhD in Psychology and Cognitive Science from Cornell University. Before joining the faculty of William & Mary, he taught at Northwestern University and served as the program director for developmental and learning sciences at the National Science Foundation.