Watch What You Say! How Language Affects Your Health and Fitness

Consider the following two sentences:

“I choose to eat better because I want to feel energetic and live a long, healthy life.”   

“I should stop drinking wine after work. It just ends up on my belly as a muffin top.” 

Which one is more likely to result in healthy living?

Our language, the words we use and the way in which we speak (and write) them, can have a lasting impact on our current and future behavior. Not only the words we say to others, but more importantly, our own self-talk can predict our success.

Our language not only tells a story about the word choice, the style and tone in which they were formed in our childhood, but can even predict if you are going to be wealthy and/or fit. In fact, linguists have long studied how our personal language determines our personal world view, how we see the world.

Infusing our language with “should” (or even “could have”) can ooze its way into your daily activities, creating a world of hopes for yourself that you truly can never accomplish. Just thinking the word “should” can manifest itself into your facial expressions, your posture, and your general outlook on this magical life of yours.

“Should” places you in a situation where the outside influence (wine, bread, skipping workouts, friends, family, whatever) has power over you.  “Choose” places the accountability and control upon you. “Should” puts the desired task into some nebulous future place.  “Choose” places you in the driver’s seat and compels your mind to address it now, not in some distant nebulous future.

Which is more motivating? Which word — “choose” or “should” — conveys confidence and a commitment?

“Should” tells you what you need to do, with whom, how, when, etc. “Choose” sends all of those pronouns to you – the conqueror of healthy behavior – the Queen (or King) of you!

At Fitness on the Run (FOR), we often hear our clients say, “OK, I’ll try.” How committed are they to the action we’ve programmed for them? “Try” insinuates an attempt. It distances them from the commitment of “doing.” For us, it sounds like “I’ll give you ‘some’ of what I’ve got today because I don’t think I can ‘DO’ it.”

Instead, we prefer the action “do.” If “try” is part of the sentence for a client, we ask them to add “today” at the end.

Perhaps, an alternative is “Ok, let’s do this!” or “I’ve never done that. Today is a great day to start.” Even, “Wow, that seems challenging. I will feel accomplished with one of ___ (exercise).” These alternatives, and many others using your own language, can affirm and commit.

Have you ever asked a friend to join you someplace, and they say “I’ll try to make it.” How does that make you feel? Do you believe they are coming? (Just say you aren’t committing, right?!) Conversely, what about when they say, “I have a commitment. Do you have another day in mind?”

Mark Sisson, author of the Primal Blueprint poignantly says, “Our words can determine the real mindset we bring to our goals.”

At FOR, we liken fitness and health to a journey. It’s a journey for many reasons. Namely, getting fit is a not only a physical state, it is a state of mind. It carries with us our physical self but also challenges us to bring that same virtue of health to our relationships, stress management, and self-love.

In 2013, Behavioral Economist and Associate Professor at UCLA’s Anderson School of Management Dr. Keith Chen published a study testing if languages that grammatically associate the future and the present foster future-oriented behavior. Dr. Chen accounted for factors like income, education level, age, religious affiliation, the countries’ legal systems, and cultural values. He found the effect of language was a huge indicator of success. Despite much criticism for his work, he found language greatly affects an individual’s ability to save money, practice safe sex, and maintain a healthy body weight.

In the study, which was published in the American Economic Review, Dr. Chen says, “For example, a German speaker predicting rain can naturally do so in the present tense, saying ‘Morgen regnet es’ which translates to ‘It rains tomorrow.’ In contrast, English would require the use of the future marker like ‘It will rain tomorrow’. In this way, English requires speakers to encode a distinction between present and future, which German does not. The obligatory future markers of the English language permeate our brains and put the task desired in the distant future.

Chen is an economist, true. Yet, his work included health behavior as well. He found countries’ national savings rates are affected by language. Having a larger proportion of people speaking languages that do not have obligatory future markers makes national savings rates higher. And, guess what the savings rate in Germany is? High.

Although English is, yes, a language that distances the future from the present, in most cases, researchers of this phenomenon all agree: making the future feel closer to the present might improve future-oriented behavior – like fitness and weight management.

In an article in Scientific American, Ozgun Atasoy, Ph.D., Boston University School of Management, relates to a study he found fascinating. I hope you do, too. One group of participants saw a digital representation of their current selves in a virtual mirror, and the other group saw an age-morphed version of their future selves. Those participants who saw the age-morphed version of their future selves allocated more money toward a hypothetical savings account. The intervention brought people’s future to the present and as a result they saved more for the future.

What if you imagine your future self as a beautiful, content, and in the best health you can possibly imagine? What if you started to use the language of “choose” not “should”?  And what if you actually started living in the present, finding joy in the little things, and feeling empowered by “CHOOSING” to be fit and healthy?  You would probably view the world a little differently with a glass half full.

Picture it: the beautiful you in the mirror.

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