Hi! Coach Kasey here. In addition to being a coach at Heat, I’m a PhD student studying health psychology topics at North Carolina State University. At NCSU I work with Dr. Jeni Burnette in the Mindset Lab. My specific research interests focus in on how mindsets might play a role in health and fitness. I’m a nerd. And I’m excited to share with you all how psychology may be more important than you think when it comes to whether or not you achieve your fitness goals.
I’m sure you’ve heard the saying “mindset is everything” at some point in your life. But what does this even really mean?
When you think about it, it does make sense that the way we personally interpret the cards that life deals us has potential to make difference in the outcomes we end up with. But is it really possible that something as seemingly simple as the mindset that you hold has a real effect on your success? Could it make a difference in the outcome of your weight-loss journey?
The answer is yes. And there’s even evidence to prove it.
A Quick Background on Mindsets
Without making things too confusing, I want to provide you with an understanding of what mindsets are and how they are studied. Dr. Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, defined mindsets as “implicit theories”, in which a “growth” mindset is known as an “incremental theory” and a “fixed mindset” is known as an “entity” theory. Those that hold an incremental theory (growth mindset) about something (e.g. weight-loss) will be more likely to believe that they can improve or change with effort and the right strategies. Whereas, those holding an entity theory (fixed mindset) tend to believe that certain attributes are unchangeable and cannot be improved upon (Dweck, 2000).
Because an individual holding a fixed mindset in some domain believes that they can’t change their abilities, they are also become easily upset when they preform poorly. People holding a growth mindset often use failure as an opportunity to learn and improve. But those holding a fixed mindset tend to see certain attributes as an unchangeable part of themselves, making them distressed when they fail because they don’t believe that they can improve. They will interpret failure as a stab at who they are as a person. What’s also interesting is that one individual can hold a growth mindset in one area, but not necessarily another. For instance, just because you believe that your intellectual ability can be changed, doesn’t mean that you also feel the same about your athletic ability.
The implicit theory and mindset language is used interchangeably in scientific literature. For the sake of clarity, I will use the “fixed” and “growth” terminology for the remainder of this blog post.
But what does this have to do with health and fitness?
A large portion of the research on mindsets has been in the academic domain. For example, one study found that students that hold growth mindsets of intelligence were more likely to persevere in the face of an obstacle (transitioning from middle school into high school) and achieve significantly higher math grades than their fixed mindset oriented counterparts (Blackwell, Trzesniewski, & Dweck, 2007). An interesting part to point out in this study is “obstacle” aspect. Perhaps, it seems, those with a growth mindset are better equipped to handle setbacks and still be successful.
This was something that Burnette and Finkel (2012) chose to understand further. In this study the authors created a mindset-based intervention that aimed to promote a growth mindset regarding the changeable nature of body weight in a group of dieters. This intervention group was compared to two other groups: the “knowledge” group and the no-treatment control group. The knowledge group received information about the importance of lifestyle, nutrition, and exercise for weight-loss goals, whereas the no-treatment control group received zero information. The knowledge and growth mindset interventions were both effective at buffering against the natural trend toward weight gain. However, the growth mindset messages mattered most when dieters reported severe setbacks. Based on the results of this study, the authors recommend using the promotion of growth mindsets, regarding body weight in order to maximize the effectiveness of dieting strategies.
So how can I use this information to my advantage?
The good news is that even if you find yourself stuck in a fixed mindset, you don’t have to stay there! It is possible to change your mindset. Your mindset can be influenced by both your own self-talk and what you hear from others (specifically authority figures and role models such as parents and coaches… HEY, AONfit coaches, I’m looking at you!). As a client, if you find yourself pinning your setbacks on “genetics” or some other seemingly unchangeable outside source, I challenge you to really look at your situation. Perhaps you aren’t as receptive to feedback as you thought? Maybe you aren’t following your macros as well as you could? Instead of seeing failure as a reflection of your personal attributes, learn! Where did you go wrong? What can be changed next time around? Setting yourself up for success starts with your mindset (this sounds so cheesy, I know, but the research backs it up!).
We are still learning more about how mindsets play a role in setting and achieving health and fitness goals. In fact, I am currently working on a project that will help us better understand how fixed vs. growth mindsets might affect our exercise habits and attitudes (stay tuned!).
For now, I can leave you with this: we have some very solid evidence that holding a growth mindset rather than a fixed mindset is beneficial for success in a variety of areas (academics, weight-loss, athletics, etc.). This goes beyond the corny “believe in yourself!” and the sappy “you can do anything you set your mind to!”.
If you sincerely place confidence in your ability to improve and succeed, you are literally statistically more likely to actually succeed in comparison to others that don’t believe in themselves.
There is always, always room for growth.
Burnette, J. L., & Finkel, E. J. (2012). Buffering against weight gain following dieting setbacks: An implicit theory intervention. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 48(3), 721-725.
Blackwell, L. S., Trzesniewski, K. H., & Dweck, C. S. (2007). Implicit theories of intelligence predict achievement across an adolescent transition: A longitudinal study and an intervention. Child development, 78(1), 246-263.
Dweck, C. S. (2000). Self-theories: Their role in motivation, personality, and development. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.