The Psychology Of Fitness

Mindsets, Body Types and Everything In Between
Growth vs. Fixed Mindset with Exercise

Growth vs. Fixed Mindset with Exercise

If someone were to ask you your opinion on what makes or breaks a person’s success, there might be tens of hundreds of answers you might give.  The reasons you give could range from having a good genes to their dogged persisted in the face of adversity.  You could say they were action-oriented or they were in the right place at the right time.  Others might respond by citing a good education, good teachers or that they were born into a rich family.  All of these things would be in some way, shape or form could be correct.  Now if that same person asked you what you think the most important aspect of that success was, that would be tougher to answer. 

Just Pondering What the Most Important Key for Success Is

To narrow it down and to try and make a case that one aspect is more important than any other would be a hard case to make.   In fact, all of the factors listed above are important and come into play at one time or another. 

The Most Important Belief
From a belief perspective though, there is one belief that is definitively more important than almost any other belief.  The reason why this belief is so important is because it effects so many other psychological factors. 

This belief belies the inherent nature of self-efficacy (the belief that you can achieve something you want), which builds self-esteem.  To me, it is inherently linked to internal motivation.  Our internal motivations are what drives us and leads to a person’s sense of “purpose” and hence persistence on a given task.  This belief is also linked to learned helplessness or a lack of self-efficacy.  It gives a person a sense of hope, of control, of acceptance and forgiveness.  With those aspects in place you have the ability to change not only a person’s habit, but also their identity.  With this belief in place, their identity isn’t locked, their future isn’t sealed and they can once again dream of something better – of achieving more than they ever thought possible.

One of the most common misconceptions is that it’s lack of good habits or lack of time that cause someone to not workout, although logically they know that they should.  What it comes down to, for most people who chose not to workout although they should, is that it’s not a part of “Who they are.”  It’s not a part of their identity and to identify with those “gym people” is just something that they can’t even conceive of.  “Who they are” is broken into their beliefs and habits as outlined in this post.   The bottom line is that without the ability to change one’s identity, any other method of change is an uphill battle.

For example, if someone wants to be rich and identifies as a poor man, then that individual will consistently undermine his most determined efforts.  Some say this is a matter of self-esteem and self-worth, but I think it goes deeper than that.  Self-esteem and self-worth are secondary to identity.  If someone believes themselves to be unworthy (and hence has low self-esteem in that aspect) as a student, worker, or as a “fitness person” but knows that, this “unworthiness” is temporary, is just the beginning of bigger and greater things in the arena of their choosing, then they have a Growth mindset and will most likely change those feelings of “unworthiness.” 

If, on the other hand, that person sees themselves as unworthy as a student, worker or a “fitness person” and knows that “some people are made for those types of things,” then they will never adapt fitness or hard work towards success in the endeavor of their choosing.  These people can be said to have a Fixed mindset.

Fixed vs. Growth Mindset
It is this difference of beliefs, of the Fixed vs. Growth mindset, first introduced by Carol Dweck with her studies on school age children, which is the most important belief an individual has in their lives. Most of us haven’t consciously chosen one mindset over another, but instead picked up certain small beliefs that have led to this crucial one.

If when you were growing up, people praised you for “being so smart” as opposed to “being such a hard-working student” then more than likely, you believe that intelligence is innate and either you are born with it (smart) or you earn it (hard-working student).  The difference between that Fixed vs Growth mindset is the difference between giving up when you are faced with a challenge (out of fear of being stupid) and between persisting until you have earned it (because you know hard work can solve the problem).

So how does this effect a person’s identity when it comes to fitness?  Well, if you think about it, what area of life isn’t effected by this mindset?  Look at love.  If you have the growth mindset, then you believe that Love is something you work towards, something you work at.  You work at making yourself better and your partner happy.  If on the other hand, you have the fixed mindset, then you are apt to believe that love is something that “just is,” something that you feel and either it’s there or it’s not.  And sure, those “feelings” of love may be evident at the beginning of a relationship, but what happens after the rush of new love wears off and you get into an argument with that person?  Does it mean that you have to work on it (Growth) or does it mean that your love is gone (Fixed)?

What about fitness?  If you think intelligence is innate and you “don’t feel comfortable” working out, then that means you are less likely to go to a gym and actually find out what to do.  The reason for this is that the Fixed mindset inhibits you to enter into situations where you will be seen as “stupid.”  Whereas, if you believe that you may make mistakes at the beginning of learning a new routine and consider those mistakes as a part of the learning process, you have a stronger belief that if you persist in working the program, ask enough questions and stick to it, no matter what, you will almost always succeed (Growth Mindset).  You may not hit your goal by a specified time, especially if that time frame is unrealistic, but you will hit your goal.  So the question comes down to this: 

Can people change from one mindset to another? 
The research says, Absolutely.  One study done by Carol Dweck helped students learn that the brain acts like a muscle, in the sense that it grows and develops with “exercise” or practice.  That like exercise, if they work at learning something, they can make the brain “stronger” or in this case, smarter.  By doing so, these students who believed previously that they were either “smart or dumb,”  and who because of that belief were some of the worse students, started to work harder, persisted longer on solving problems and improved their grades.  Those who weren’t taught that the brain was like a muscle and could be developed, had their grades continue to drop.  

This is a lesson that we all should be taught – that with hard work and persistence most of us will see success in any endeavor that we take on.  That we have the power to change and that power of change is fuelled by good old hard work.   That although there are “naturally gifted individuals,”  most success comes from the consistent work put into an effort and not simply relying on talents alone.   

At the same time, we should also be taught to learn to accept failure as something natural when first learning something new.  It’s not that we are failures or “stupid” because we don’t (and won’t) pick everything up as quickly as others – it’s that we just haven’t “built those muscles” yet.  

By learning these lessons, we are learning that we are not destined to be pawns of our past.  As Dweck told the students, “nobody laughs at babies and says how dumb they are because they can’t talk.”

There is a myth, that once we reach a certain age, we are limited by “who we are” at that age.  Some people think that that age occurs around puberty, others think it’s set in stone at the age of 18.  In fact, those that know the body and the mind, know that it is continually being reshaped by our actions NOW.  

At every moment, every action and every thought is shaping who you are and who you will become.  At any moment, we can decide to start to make those changes in our lives.  As such, we have great power to mold both our bodies and our minds past any “biological marker.”  A great read on the changes the brain can make as we get older, and how it can overcome incredible odds at any age, is The Brain that Changes Itself by Norman Doidge.

With that said, you can get started today on your own journey of “Growth” and allow yourself to no longer be hindered and held back by false beliefs about what you can and can not do.

How to Change Your Mindset
Start today by becoming aware of the beliefs of how you identify yourself.  This is achieved in three steps:
1 – Write down the different roles you take on.  This can be anything from mother, daughter, whatever your job title is, student (and we’re always students no matter when you graduated), whatever your hobby is, “fitness enthusiast” or “person that doesn’t exercise.” 

2 – Figure out whether or not you can see yourself growing in those roles or instead believe that you are “stuck” and there’s nothing you can do about it. In other words, do you believe that you can grow in these roles or that “you are just the way you are?” Do you believe intelligence is innate or something that is achieved through hard work?  Do you believe that some people are born with good genetics to lose weight and you weren’t?  Do you believe that you either have a good memory or you don’t?   As Buddha said, “Believe nothing no matter where you read it, or who said it, no matter if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and common sense.”

3 – Once you identify those limits, those blocks on allowing yourself to grow, set about changing them. This happens by re-evaluating the beliefs you hold about that particular role.  For example, there are a number of beliefs that hold people back from exercising that range from “never seeing results from exercise” to “working out is hard.”  In the Free Reports page, I list 25 beliefs along with ways to reframe those beliefs. 

So although there are limits to everyone’s ability to change (I may be able to run faster compared to my previous best, but I’m probably not going to beat Usian Bolt in a race…in fact, I know I won’t), that doesn’t mean that we are close to achieving our individual potential.  In the end, that’s the only thing that matters – is achieving our individual potential.  As Carol Dweck writes in her book Mindset, “Just because some people can do something with little or no training, it doesn’t mean that others can’t do it (and sometimes do it even better) with training.”

Failure is Not Final
In their book, Switch, Chip and Dan Heath discuss how one company (IDEO) studied the Growth vs Fixed mindset.  This is what they share about what IDEO learned from their studying:

“They are creating the expectation of failure.  They are telling team members not to trust that initial flush of good feeling at the beginning of the project, because what comes next is hardship and toil and frustration.  Yet, strangely enough, when they deliver this warning, it comes across as optimistic.

That’s the paradox of the growth mindset.  Although it seems to draw attention to failure, and in fact encourages us to seek out failure, it is unflaggingly optimistic.  We will struggle, we will fail, we will be knocked down—but throughout, we’ll get better and we’ll succeed in the end.

The growth mindset, then, is a buffer against defeatism.  It reframes failure as a natural part of the change process.  And that’s critical, because people will persevere only if they perceive falling down as learning rather than as failing.”

And that my friends is what you must do.  This is the most important belief.  If you can embrace failure, embrace change and continue to Persevere and “Grow” you will start down the path of success…and in no other way shall you arrive at lasting success.  It is not forged by shortcuts, quick fixes or impatience.  Lasting success is achieved only by growing, becoming more and doing the work necessary to overcome the adversities that life will inevitably throw at you.   Get Started Today!

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2 comments found

  1. Great tips! I think most people aim too high and if they re-evaluate then they can be happier and more successful in everything not just exercise!

    1. It’s not that people aim too high…it’s that they don’t realize there will be pitfalls. You will stumble, trip and sometimes fall flat on your face in an attempt to improve upon something. The key is to remember that that’s normal. It’s a part of life, a part of growing and moving past your comfort zone, no matter where you aim.

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