Can Feeling Younger Actually Make You Stronger?
Imagine that I just asked you to lift as much weight as you could on a bench press, and you lifted 50 pounds (Bravo!). Then I told you exactly that: "Bravo!" and then I added, "You know, that's how much people 10 years younger than you usually lift."
Your face brightens. I ask you to try out the bench press again. You oblige, only this time you lift 60 pounds instead of 50. Coincidence?
Not necessarily, according to a study that recently appeared in the Journals of Gerontology: Series B called "'Feeling younger, being stronger': An experimental study of subjective age and physical functioning among older adults." In the study, 49 people between the ages of 52 and 91 were asked to complete a measure of handgrip strength. They were also asked to describe how old (or young) they felt by assigning themselves a subjective age. Half of the group then received positive feedback about their handgrip performance that specifically indicated that they performed better than people their same actual age. The other group did not receive any feedback (which made me feel bad for them, but at least they didn't receive any negative feedback either).
The groups were then asked to complete the handgrip measure again as well as note their subjective age one more time. Lo and behold, the participants that received positive feedback reported feeling younger than their actual ages and performed significantly better on the handgrip measure the second time around. No changes in subjective age or grip strength occurred among the group that received no feedback.
This study was unique in that it was the first one known to try to "induce" a younger subjective age in its participants. I have a couple of reactions to this study. First, I think it's fruitful in that the intervention seemed to improve physical functioning among older adults. If more research on this strategy shows that the power of positive feedback really works, this could be a very low-cost, empowering way to help older people function better in day-to-day life and perhaps stave off illness or disability.
My second reaction is more reflective than practical. I find it quite interesting that thinking we are younger than we are might have such a profound effect on our physical well-being. Is this a culture-bound phenomenon? In other words, if we tried this experiment in other cultures, would we achieve the same results? Or would people from other cultures - who, perhaps, don't mind being as old as they are - find it meaningless and strange to be told that they seem younger than they really are?
It's obvious that the participants in this study highly valued feeling younger (and perhaps more importantly, being perceived by others as such). This would seem like a prerequisite for this kind of intervention to work. Only more research on this topic will clarify these cultural and value-based questions.
In the meantime, I'm happy for you no matter how much or how little you lifted on my bench press. As long as you tried your best, that deserves positive feedback in my book.
Stephan, Y., Chalabaev, A., Kotter-Grühn, D., & Jaconelli, A. (2012). "Feeling younger, being stronger": An experimental study of subjective age and physical functioning among older adults. Journals of Gerontology: Series B, 68(1), 1-7.