Love Your Workout and It Loves You Right Back

This study says that how you perceive a sport determines how hard it is, and that the placebo effect can help make your activity less strenuous.

Exercise often feels like hard work. It damn well should, because you’re lifting heavy objects, pushing your cardiovascular system to its limits, and forcing your body to burn fat and glucose to supplement the energy you’re burning.

But the truth is that everyone gets tired of working hard. It can be exhausting to go 100% intensity every day, every week, every month at the gym, on the track, or at the park. This is especially true if you don’t see the results you’re hoping for. Eventually, you run the risk of burning out if you push your body too hard.

According to a new study into how expectations may help you improve your exercise experience and long-term exercise adherence, your perception may have a lot more to do with your workout results than you’d expect. A team of researchers from the Department of Sports Science at the University of Freiburg gathered 78 adults (men and women, between 18 and 32) and set them to a 30-minute cycling workout. Before the workout, they asked the participants to rate their fitness level. They also showed some of the participants short films on the benefits of the workout they’d be doing. Some of the participants were also given compression shirts, which the films praised as helping to improve cycling performance or to increase sweating.

During and after the workout, the participants were asked how strenuous the training was. The participants who believed themselves in the best condition reported the least strain during the workout. The participants who believed themselves less athletic reported a higher strain. Those who believed the compression shirt would help also found the workout less strenuous, especially among the less athletic.

Does this mean you need fancy motivational films or high-tech gear to crush your workout? Absolutely not. All you need is a change in perspective.

The people who believed themselves fit had no problem performing the workout because they felt fit. They didn’t need the compression shirts to increase their positive attitude; they knew they were fit and thus powered through the workout with less strain.

Conversely, the people who felt less fit had a harder time because of their attitude. The compression shirts provided a placebo effect and boosted their confidence. In the end, however, it all came down to the way they felt before the workout.

These findings are further evidence that the placebo effect works when you do sport. And they show that is it does make a difference what you think about sport and its effects. “Not least, the findings impressively show for all those who don’t consider themselves to be great sportsmen and -women — the right product really can make sport more pleasant, if ‘only’ you believe in it.” Says Psychologist Hendrik Mothes of the Department of Sport Science at the University of Freiburg.


1. Hendrik Mothes, Christian Leukel, Harald Seelig, Reinhard Fuchs. “Do placebo expectations influence perceived exertion during physical exercise?” PLOS ONE, 2017; 12 (6): e0180434 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0180434.

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