Mindset and Exercise


One study took the placebo effect a step further and demonstrated how mindset toward physical exercise affects a person's health. Ellen Langer of Harvard is well-known for her work on mindset, health and aging. I once heard her speak at a conference and one of her studies is particularly thought-provoking - the so-called ‘chambermaid' study.

Langer and her colleague investigated the connection between perceived exercise of hotel housekeeping staff and their health. They found that chambermaids who came to believe that their work involved exercise became heathier compared to chambermaids who had no such mindset change – even though actual exercise for the informed group did not change.  

The researchers chose to study housekeeping because the role involves significant exercise – cleaning rooms, making beds, walking, lifting and bending.  People in these roles might not realise the amount of exercise they were getting and they would then probably not be getting the health benefits of their job. The researchers hypothesised that if their mindset shifted so they became aware of the exercise they are getting then health improvements would likely follow.   

Seven hotels were chosen with four hotels assigned to the ‘informed group’ and three to the ‘control group’. During an early stage of the process chambermaids in the informed group were given information about how their work is good exercise. The control group was given no such information.  

At the beginning of the four-week study measures were taken of weight and percent of body fat, body mass index, waist-to-hip ratio and blood pressure.  Four weeks later the researchers returned and recorded the same measures.


The results were significant in both perceived exercise and the impacts on health.  For the informed group the number of people who reported exercising regularly doubled and the average amount of exercise increased by 20% (both were perceived exercise as there was no change in actual exercise outside of work and no change in workload at work).  

This shift in mindset “was accompanied by remarkable improvement in physiological measures associated with exercise”. After just four weeks of knowing their work was good exercise the informed group lost an average of 2 pounds (1 kg), lowered their systolic blood pressure by 10 points and were significantly healthier on the measures of body-fat, body mass index and waist-to-hip ratio.  

For the control group there was no change in perceived exercise or in health measures.  

Just a shift in mindset was enough – the realisation of exercise improved health outcomes even though actual exercise did not change.  

(Source: Alia Crum and Ellen Langer, ‘Mind-set Matters: Exercise and the Placebo Effect’ in Psychological Science 2007 18: 165-171)


Implications for Leaders 

This study provokes possibilities of wider implications of mindset. I know in organisational roles over my career that at the times when I worked for a boss who showed belief in me and my work my energy and output increased significantly. Mindset does matter. 

You might self-assess the mindset you establish and project on to your people as part of how you lead:

  • Mindset: I’m interested in you as a person (so they are respecting of self and colleagues)
  • Mindset: I establish a safe place for people to work (so they can do their best work)
  • Mindset: It’s okay that we learn from mistakes (so people try things)
  • Mindset: I have confidence in them and their work (so they have self-belief)
  • Mindset: Change opens opportunities for growth (so they are okay with change)
  • Mindset: Our work has a big impact (so they take pride from their work).


Andrew O'Keeffe


Andrew O'Keeffe is a Human Resources Executive. He has observed bosses for many years, has worked for bosses and has been a boss. As a result of these studies he has written one of the very best leadership books ever, called 'The Boss'and recently released 'Hardwired Humans'.

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