Key Takeaways

  1. The way you perceive your ability to change certain attributes (e.g. body weight) or improve on specific skills (e.g. exercise) is defined by your mindset; and your mindset can determine your goal success.
  2. Scientific research has shown us that growth mindsets about health, body weight, and fitness are important predictors of engagement in healthy behaviors.
  3. You aren’t stuck with a fixed mindset – it can change and become more growth-oriented over time.

You’ve probably heard the term growth mindset thrown around online.

You’ve probably also heard it’s way better than a fixed mindset.

Makes sense—growth is usually good and staying stuck in your ways is often bad, but what do these two terms really mean? 

And more importantly—why should you care? 

After all, if you listen to most of the #influencers on Instagram, celebrity trainers, and other fitness gurus, how you think and what you believe about diet and exercise is more or less irrelevant. 

This idea is embodied in quotes like this:

Embrace the suck.

On good days, work out. On bad days, work out harder.

Remember when you gave up but kept going?

All that matters is that you go through the motions—stick to the diet, show up to the gym, sleep, repeat.

Of course, these barren quotes and “no pain no gain” philosophy might help get you started, but  how do you stick to your diet and training plan long term? How do you stick to a healthier lifestyle every day?

Once you understand the basics of proper diet and exercise, your ability to get in shape and stay that way depends almost entirely on your ability to stick to the plan. 

And your ability to stick to a fitness plan—or any plan—largely hinges on your mindset.

This isn’t some woo-woo-yoga-teacher-feel-good babble, either—strong scientific evidence shows how you think about your ability to stick to your diet and exercise plan, and about your future potential for self improvement, is a major determinant of your results.

In this article, you’re going to learn what a growth mindset is and how it differs from a fixed mindset. 

You’ll also learn what the science says about growth mindsets and your long-term results, and how to cultivate a growth mindset in all areas of your life.

Let’s get started.


What Is a Growth Mindset?

Before we break down what a growth mindset is—it’s best to get a handle on what mindsets are as a whole.

Mindsets can be defined in a lot of different ways, but for the purpose of this article, mindsets are theories or beliefs about the world that we use (often without realizing it) to give meaning to life events.

Dr. Carol Dweck, one of the world’s leading researchers in the field of motivation, defines mindsets on a continuum from fixed to growth.

On the one hand, those with a growth mindset are more likely to believe they can improve or change with effort and the right methods. 

On the other hand, those with a fixed mindset tend to believe that certain attributes are unchangeable and cannot be improved upon no matter how hard they work or what methods they use.

For example, if you think your body weight is something you can change by modifying your diet and exercise habits, you have a growth mindset. If you think your body weight is mostly determined by your genetics and is more or less immutable, you have a fixed mindset.

Because people with a fixed mindset believe they can’t change certain attributes they also become easily upset and are more likely to give up when they perform poorly.

When someone has a fixed mindset about their body weight, failure and setbacks are seen not just as a deficiency in that particular attribute or skill—not losing weight—but as a reflection of their ineptitude as a person.

When someone has a growth mindset about body weight, they view setbacks in their weight loss journey as productive challenges and learning opportunities.

Obviously, believing you can change and being able to weather setbacks is a major advantage when it comes to changing your body. This is also important when it comes to self-regulation—controlling your behaviors. 

For example, when it comes to resisting that box of doughnuts in the breakroom, if you believe you can change your body weight (you have a growth mindset), you’re better equipped to pass on that french cruller, because in the back of your mind you realize you’re in control of your body weight. 

In other words, if you know your actions will produce results over time, you’re more likely to take them. If you don’t believe your actions will produce results, you’re unlikely to bother.

Summary: Your mindset is the collection of theories or beliefs about the world that you use (often without realizing it) to give meaning to life events, and a growth mindset is the belief that with enough effort and the right methods, you can change for the better.

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What Does the Science Say About Growth Mindsets?

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Telling people to “believe in themselves,” is hardly revolutionary advice and is also common sense, but what makes it really compelling is the scientific evidence behind it.

Scientists have known about the power of growth mindsets for quite some time, but most of this research has been concentrated on intelligence and academic performance.

For example, research conducted by scientists at Columbia University found that people who believe they can increase their intelligence generally get better grades and test scores in school.

Based on this research, scientists wondered how growth mindsets might play a role in achievement in other areas, like health and fitness.

A recent study conducted by scientists at North Carolina State University sought to examine how people’s mindsets affected their exercise behavior. 

They had 117 people answer a series of questions about their mindset regarding exercise and their perceived ability to become more fit, as well as their exercise habits.

The researchers found that those with stronger growth mindsets in regards to fitness reported exercising more frequently in the past, compared to those with more fixed mindsets.

This study was based on participants’ naturally occurring mindsets, so it basically confirms what most people already know: some people are wired to workout more than others. 

The really interesting question, though, is what if we could change people’s mindsets to get them to workout more?

So, the same researchers sought to determine whether people’s mindsets about fitness were actually changeable.

In another study published in the same paper, they randomly assigned 156 women and 158 men, 28 years old on average, to read an article about the changeable nature of fitness or an article focused on genetics and our inability to become more fit.

As with the first study, the researchers had everyone answer a battery of questions at both the start and end of the study about their mindsets and exercise habits.

In order to keep people from realizing what the purpose of the study was (and telling the researchers what they thought they wanted to hear), they were led to believe the purpose of reading the article was to provide feedback to the researchers on its comprehensibility before it was used in another study. 

The researchers found this simple task dramatically influenced the people’s mindsets. Those who read the article about the possibility of improving their fitness reported stronger growth mindsets on the questionnaire, and those who read the article on the immutable nature of fitness and importance of genetics scored much lower on the mindset questionnaire—their mindset was much more fixed. 

The most interesting result was that this effect was observed despite people’s initial mindset.

That is, someone who naturally had more of a fixed mindset developed more of a growth mindset after reading the article about the ability to improve their fitness.

Likewise, people who naturally had more of a growth mindset developed more of a fixed mindset after reading the article about the inability to improve their fitness.

Even though their mindsets changed in this case, can simply reading an article really change your mindset long term?

Can these temporary benefits stick? 

Although research has yet to be done to determine whether this is the case, we do know that relatively short, simple interventions to improve mindsets about body weight and in other areas, like mindsets about personality, still show effects months after the studies ended.

Similar to the first study with past exercise habits, those with stronger growth mindsets toward fitness expressed more intention to exercise in the future than those with more fixed mindsets.

The main takeaway from these studies is your mindset plays a key role in determining how much you work out and how much you plan on working out in the future.

That said, we all know exercise is only half the battle when it comes to health and fitness goals. Nutrition is the other side of the coin.

Many people are able to work up the willpower to work out somewhat regularly, but most struggle to stick to any kind of diet for more than a few weeks. And this is understandable: while working out requires some discipline for a few hours per week, dieting requires discipline the other 23 hours of the day, every day.

In a study conducted at Washington State University, the researchers sent 34 women and 39 men (average age was 20 years old) through a questionnaire about mindsets regarding body weight and then subjected them to a fake taste-test with M&Ms (the “unhealthy” snack) and raisins (the “healthy” snack). They were led to believe the study was intended to get their feedback on the snacks (saltiness, sweetness, crunchiness, etc.).

This “taste-test” disguised the true purpose of the study: to evaluate people’s mindsets about body weight and how they relate to amount of snacks consumed.

The researchers made a few predictions about the results: 

  1. They expected people with a growth mindset about body weight to eat fewer calories from the M&Ms. Since their mindset leads them to believe that their weight is changeable, they should have more motivation to resist consuming too many M&Ms.
  2. They expected the people with a fixed mindset would eat more calories from the M&Ms.
  3. They expected mindsets to play no role in the amount of raisins consumed because less self-regulation is required to resist overeating raisins, compared to M&Ms.

And that’s exactly what they found. 

People’s mindsets didn’t seem to affect how many calories they ate of the healthy snack—the raisins. Those with a growth and fixed mindset tended to eat about the same number of calories of raisins. 

But, people with a growth mindset consumed significantly fewer calories from M&Ms than those with a fixed mindset.

Of course, this makes sense.

If you believe your dietary choices have little to no impact on your weight, then why even pay attention to how much and what kind of food you are eating? Eat as many raisins and M&Ms as you like, because your genetics will decide your weight like fate decides your future, right? 

On the flip side—if you believe your dietary choices are directly linked to your weight, it makes sense you’d eat a reasonable amount of a healthy snack (raisins, in this case) and curtail your intake of less healthy options, like M&Ms.

In a way, your mindset controls your eating and exercise behaviors without you even realizing it.

What’s more, there’s even evidence your mindset may be encoded into the structure of your brain.

If you dig into the neuroscience literature, you’ll find there’s a compelling connection between your mindset and how your brain operates.

There aren’t any studies looking at how this might relate to health and fitness, but there are some studies looking at how your mindset affects how your brain functions when presented with other problems.

For example, in one study conducted by scientists at Michigan State University, the researchers had participants wear an electrode cap to measure the electrical patterns in their brains while working through a complex task. Specifically, the researchers were looking for areas of the brain related to attention to light up.

Each time participants answered a question related to the task, they were told if they answered correctly, and then were later told what the correct answer is.

The researchers found that the “attention” part of the brain lit up differently depending on the mindset of the participants.

People with a fixed mindset about intelligence only paid attention to whether their answer was right or wrong—with no interest in the correct answer.

People with a growth mindset about intelligence paid attention to all the information: whether their answer was correct and what the correct answer was.

For the fixed mindset folks, it was more important to pay attention to whether or not they were correct, than it was to learn what was actually correct. They came into the study believing their intelligence was unchangeable, and they weren’t concerned about learning and improving, because why bother if your intelligence is immutable anyway?

And this showed in their performance, too. On a follow-up task, those with a fixed mindset performed significantly worse, compared to those with a growth mindset.

Obviously, paying attention to whether or not you were correct on a task will lead to higher likelihood of success on that task in the future. Those with a fixed mindset paid less attention, so it’s not surprising they performed poorly.

Other research has linked growth mindsets to other areas of the brain related to heightened awareness, attention to errors, and receptive feedback.

In other words, people with a growth mindset are more interested in identifying their mistakes, learning how to get the right answers, and using that information to help them improve in the future. 

Fundamentally, they believe they have the capacity to improve, whereas people with a fixed mindset believe their performance—good or bad—is often a foregone conclusion. 

Summary: People with a growth mindset about fitness are more likely to exercise and plan on exercising more in the future. What’s more, with a growth mindset, you’re more likely to seek out solutions to problems and learn from your mistakes, which has positive effects in many areas of your life.

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How to Develop a Growth Mindset in 3 Simple Steps


What type of mindset you have about your ability to become more fit, about your body weight, and about your health can all impact whether or not you achieve your health and fitness goals.

But, how exactly does one cultivate a growth mindset?

Well, researchers are still figuring out the most effective methods, but here are three strategies that will likely help: 

1. Be okay with “not yet.”

Give yourself some credit for the effort and work you’ve put in so far.

Just because you’ve only lost a couple pounds or your eating habits are still subpar, doesn’t mean you won’t ever get there. It just means you haven’t gotten there yet.

Research shows this subtle shift in perspective can have profound effects on mindset.

One of the biggest mistakes you can make is giving up in the beginning of your weight loss journey because you feel you aren’t making fast enough progress. 

While research indicates fast initial weight loss is beneficial for long-term weight loss success, you shouldn’t always expect that to happen. 

Sometimes life will get in the way, you’ll slip up, or you’ll do everything right but the scale won’t change for a week or more.  

It’s common to try and fail a few times when attempting to get fit before the changes really stick. However, after the first few “practice rounds,” you’ll likely work out enough of the kinks in your approach to see lasting change.

Sticking to the plan during that time can be tough, though, which is why it’s important to look at your goal as “not yet” achieved, rather than hopeless.

Sometimes, you just need to get started.

2. Find a role model.

Know someone that was successful in achieving their weight loss or fitness goals?

Chat with them!

Assuming they didn’t use unhealthy methods to get there, people who’ve done what you want to do are not only a great resource but are a clear example that change is possible.

It’s hard to have a fixed mindset about fat loss, muscle building, or changing your health and fitness habits when you have an example of someone who did exactly that.

In a 12-week long study conducted by researchers at the University of Richmond, 169 people interested in losing weight were randomly assigned to 3 different groups.

One group went through a weight loss program focused on cultivating a growth mindset about body weight. This program included a variety of strategies to promote a growth mindset, with a focus on previous weight loss success stories from others.

The second group completed a “knowledge-only” program that provided previously validated information and strategies about healthy eating and exercise for weight loss goals. 

And the third group received no program at all.

Before the study began, people came into the lab to complete a questionnaire that assessed their naturally occurring mindsets about body weight.

At the end of the study, people went to the lab once more to complete the mindset assessment.

The results of the study provide evidence for just how powerful learning about other people’s success is for building a growth mindset and for being successful yourself.

Those who heard about others’ weight loss success stories significantly strengthened their beliefs about the changeable nature of body weight, whereas those in the other two groups actually ended the study with stronger fixed mindsets about body weight. 

3. Write about it.

The science behind the benefits of journaling for mental and physical health is already out there. 

And you can leverage those benefits to burnish your growth mindset, too.

Here are a few suggestions on what to write about: 

Write about your goals: What do you want to achieve?

Write about smaller successes: What have you already achieved?

Write about the setbacks and obstacles you’ve run into: What has gotten in the way of your achievement?

Write about the setbacks and obstacles you expect in the future, and how you’ll deal with them: What could go wrong, and what will I do when that happens?

Write about what you’ll focus on next to get closer to your goals: What strategies will I try next?

You can also try writing to someone else in your position. This is a validated method proven in the scientific literature to encourage growth mindsets. Here’s an example journal prompt to get you started:

“Imagine that your good friend recently started a new training program and they are also monitoring their nutrition. They are 8 weeks in and have only lost 2 pounds—what would you say to them?”

Often, we give others better advice than we give ourselves, and this exercise makes it easier to overcome that foible of our personalities.

Ultimately, developing a growth mindset is about seeing failure or setbacks as opportunities to reflect, learn, and improve as a person.

Where did you go wrong?

What can you do better next time?

Setting yourself up for success starts with your mindset. This sounds cheesy, but now you know: the science backs it up!

Summary: You don’t have to be stuck with a fixed mindset. According to the research, you can change your mindset through methods like accepting your current situation and planning for a better future, finding a role model to guide you along the way, and writing about your past experiences and future goals.

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The Bottom Line on Growth Mindsets

We all know eating healthier and working out is crucial for achieving health and fitness goals (and for keeping our overall health in check).

But simply knowing this is clearly not enough to make lasting changes in our behavior.

It’s foolish to separate our brain and our thoughts from our physical health and our fitness goals. 

These things are completely intertwined (science says so!), and how we think about things can determine our success.

The term “growth mindset” has become more and more popular, and for a good reason. 

We have very solid scientific 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 slogans “believe in yourself!” and “you can do anything you set your mind to!”

You can have the most perfectly crafted diet and training plan laid out and you can be feeling more motivated than ever before . . . but with a fixed mindset you’ll have a hard time being successful in the long run.

If you sincerely place confidence in your ability to improve and succeed, you are statistically more likely to succeed in comparison to others that don’t hold this growth minded outlook.

If you find yourself struggling, ask yourself: do you truly believe you can change?

Remember: there is always room for growth.

What’s your take on growth mindset? Have anything else you’d like to share? Let me know in the comments below.

+ Scientific References