The ‘placebo’ effect also works with exercise: that’s the hypothesis of a study conducted by scientists at Agder University in Norway. The placebo effect has long been known because it can contribute to the benefits we can get from drugs. It also means that even a ‘fake’ treatment can have a powerful effect if we believe it will be helpful.

Now research suggests there may be a similar effect when it comes to how much we get out of exercise: telling people they were doing a “special” type of workout led to greater physical improvements, researchers say.

In the study, which involved 40 men and women in their 20s, one group was told that each of them was following a specially customized exercise regimen; the others were told they were following the same exercise plan. In fact, all 40 volunteers followed almost the same regimen, which included a combination of 20-meter sprints, leg press exercises and squats, over the course of a 10-week experiment.

However, the results, published in April in the journal Scientific Reports, showed that those who believed they were following a customized training program experienced greater increases in muscle size and were able to do more squats. The researchers said it may have been the case that the volunteers trained with greater intensity because they expected the training plan to have the desired effect.

Alternatively, they may have felt compelled to work hard to prove that the regimen produced good results because it was personalized (or so they believed). But it could also be that the placebo effect did not push them to exercise more, rather that having a personalized training plan reduced their anxiety, which reduced muscle tension and made movements more efficient and fluid.

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