Dr Ellen Langer is a social psychologist known as the “mother of mindfulness”. In her work at Harvard University and elsewhere, she has pioneered studies over the past 25 years on mindfulness and the illusion of control, stress, decision-making, and health. In 2009 she completed a study on mindfulness exercises.
The study reported in the New York Times described how she helped 44 hotel chambermaids lower their blood pressure, body weight and “waist to hip” ratios simply by telling them what they did involved some serious exercise.
Self-awareness, it seems, was the women’s elliptical trainer. Their mindfulness exercises were doing their job and in so doing, literally and from a mindfulness perspective, helping the chambermaids to clean up.
At the start of the study, Langer quizzed 84 maids at seven carefully matched hotels about how much exercise they got. One third of the women said they got no exercise at all, while two-thirds said they did not work out regularly. Langer took several measures of the women’s basic fitness levels, which indicated that they, indeed, had the poor health of basically sedentary people. Then just over half the women were told an unfamiliar truth: cleaning 15 rooms daily, pushing recalcitrant vacuum cleaners, scrubbing tubs, pulling sheets, constitutes more than enough activity to meet the accepted recommendation of a half-hour daily of physical activity. The researchers even provided specifics: 15 minutes of scrubbing burns 60 calories, 15 minutes of vacuuming burns 50. The basic message and the details were then posted in the maids’ lounges in the hotels where the 44 women worked, to serve as reminders, while a control group was left in the dark.
A month later, Langer checked back with the women to find remarkable results. The average study group maid had lost 2 pounds, while her systolic blood pressure had dropped by 10 points; by all measures the 44 women “were significantly healthier.” Yet there were no reported changes in behavior, only in mind-set, with the vast majority of the women now considering themselves regular exercisers.
Langer sees the study as a lesson in the importance of mindfulness, long a subject of her research, and which need not involve Buddhism or meditation, she stresses.
“It’s about noticing new things; it’s about engagement,” she says.
The New York Times then poses an interesting question “will white collar readers made freshly aware, mindful of just how sedentary their work lives are in contrast to a housekeeper’s, suffer a corresponding decline in health?”
Countering this may be as simple as getting off the train or bus one stop earlier than normal or parking the car further away to ensure you get the extra 15-20 minutes each way walking time.
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