How to Develop a Growth Mindset Around Fitness and Exercise

Think about the last time you tried a new exercise, sport, or fitness-related skill. Did you struggle at it?

Did that struggle give you a boost of motivation (“I am not going to let this thing beat me. I’ll try harder and work at it until I get it”)?

Or did encountering the struggle immediately make you feel hopeless and want to give up (“I’ll never be good at this so I might as well not even try”)?

If you responded the first way, you most likely have a growth mindset around fitness and health.

If you encountered the latter, you probably fall in with the majority of people who have more of a fixed mindset around fitness.

It’s also possible to be in between, sometimes having more of a growth mindset and other times falling more into a fixed mindset (“I’m good at basketball; bad at pull ups”).

The good news is that you can actually change this limiting mindset. And when you do, you’ll open up a whole new world of opportunities and make more progress on your fitness journey than you ever before thought possible.

Developing a growth mindset around fitness and exercise is something that I’ve had to learn throughout my own fitness journey, and I’ll talk more about that later in this post. But first, let’s look at what it actually means to have a growth or a fixed mindset around fitness and exercise.

Growth vs. Fixed Mindsets Around Fitness

I first learned about the term growth mindset in Mindset: The New Psychology of Success by Carol Dweck, Ph.D. If you haven’t read it, I highly recommend it.

Dweck breaks down two basic ways that most people approach life…

With a fixed mindset: This means you generally believe that your skills and abilities are fixed or predetermined, so you’re either good at something or you’re not. People with this mindset tend to believe that there’s not much you can do to change—who you are is who you are.

With a growth mindset: This means you typically believe that no matter where you’re starting from, you can improve.

While the majority of Dweck’s work has focused around learning in classroom or work situations, it’s not a huge stretch to see how this can be applied to fitness and exercise.

If you have a growth mindset around fitness you believe you can get fitter, stronger, and even more athletic, no matter where you’re starting from.

Hard work, proper goal setting, and perseverance will get you there.

On the other hand, if you have more of a fixed mindset around fitness, you probably have a general underlying belief that no matter what you do, you won’t improve.

Why Mindset Isn’t Always So Black and White

Unsurprisingly, having a growth vs. fixed mindset isn’t always so black and white. More likely than not, you believe you’re good at—and maybe can even get better at—certain things. Often, these are the activities you’ve been somewhat good at since you were a kid.

For example, if you’re an endurance runner, you may have always found running enjoyable, and even showed a natural aptitude for running when you were younger. You may have been told by others that you were always good at running. And you’re probably confident that if you want to, you could get even better at running, provided you have clear goals, a good training plan, and the right support system.

Yet when it comes to an upper-body strength exercise like pull-ups or push-ups, you might believe you just suck at them. You may have always been told you had a weak upper body (many women fall into this category), or maybe you just believe (or have been told) that runners can’t also have strong upper bodies.

Whatever your reason, you may believe that any time or work you put into upper body workouts is generally hopeless—you’re not going to get much better, even if you try.

But see what happens here?

You believe you’re good at running, so you actively work to improve at it and get better. You don’t believe you’re good at upper body strength work, so you avoid working on it, and as a result, don’t make any upper body strength gains.

Essentially, what this means is that if you believe you can’t improve, you’re unlikely to see any improvement.

If you truly believe that you’ll NEVER get better at something, you’re unlikely to put any of the necessary time or effort required to actually make any progress. And no effort equals no improvement.

But no matter where you fall on the mindset spectrum right now, you can change it. My own story is just one example of this; if I can change my mindset around fitness and exercise, you can too.

My Personal Story: Growing Up With a Fixed Mindset 

When I was growing up, if I tried something new and didn’t immediately show a natural ability for it, I would give up almost right away.

This rang true in academics (I’m looking at you, chemistry), seemingly trivial things like board games or video games (I ended up in tears after losing way too often), and even friendships (parents and teachers were always telling me that I was a shy kid, and I used that as an excuse to not try and make friends).

And it was definitely the case with anything related to fitness or exercise.

When it came to sports or P.E. activities, I assumed I was either “good” (e.g. born with natural abilities) or “bad” at something.

For example…

I was good at medium distance running, and bad at pull-ups. Good at snowboarding, bad at skateboarding. Good at soccer, terrible at golf.

You get the idea.

But the truth is that I never even gave the things I was “bad” at a chance.

When I tried a pull up for the first time and discovered I couldn’t do one, I wrote it off as something I didn’t have the talent for and never even tried to build up the strength or technique needed to be able to do an actual pull up.

The same was true for all the other fitness-related activities I instantly deemed myself bad at. I didn’t allow myself to try.

Looking back, it’s obvious that I had a completely fixed mindset around fitness. I had the limiting belief that if I wasn’t already good at something, I would never be able to get better.

Changing to a Growth Mindset

Fast forward a few years to college, I had put on the classic freshman fifteen and basically felt terrible all the time. I barely had any energy to get through my day, didn’t like the way I looked or felt in my clothes, I felt weak…and I hated it. I was constantly embarrassed to have to ask people for help to do the simplest things, such as lifting my carry-on suitcase up in an airplane or carrying heavy grocery bags across the parking lot.

I was the most out of shape I’d ever been, and my confidence levels were at an all-time low. I’d become resigned to the idea that I would be a pudgy, weak, non-athletic person for the rest of my life.

Yet one day, while at home visiting my family, my older brother was teasing me as usual. But this time, the subject of his teasing was about me not being able to do a push-up.

Always wanting to prove him wrong, I did three of what, looking back, were probably the world’s worst push-ups. But it didn’t matter to me then how bad my form was. Those push-ups changed something in me that day. Having never even tried to get fitter or stronger, I wondered what it would be like to actually work at it.

At the time, I’d hit rock bottom in nearly every area of my life. I felt like I had nothing to lose, so I might as well actually try for once in my life. I didn’t know the concept of a growth mindset yet, but that’s basically what I was opening myself up to.

That mindset shift changed everything for me. And I’m happy to say that today, I’m able to maintain a growth mindset not only when it comes to fitness and exercise, but in nearly every area of my life. This seemingly simple shift is the basis for everything I’ve done in my fitness journey, career, and in my life in general over the past decade.

It’s what has allowed me to try, fail, succeed, and try again.

“When people already know they’re deficient, they have nothing to lose by trying.” – Carol Dweck

How to Develop a Growth Mindset Around Fitness 

These days, I strongly believe that no matter where you’re starting from, you can improve. Yes, it will be hard work. Yes, it will take time. But it will always be worth it when you look back at how far you’ve come.

Below are the key approaches you’ll need to adopt to develop a growth mindset around fitness and exercise:

Approach #1: You Believe Talent is Grown, Not Something You’re Born With 

Steven Kotler, journalist and author of several books including Stealing Fire, The Rise of Superman and The Future is Faster Than You Think says that, “believing that talent is something we are born with and cannot change will ultimately limit your ability to improve.”

The reason is this…

If you see a high performer (whether an elite athlete, an action sports hero of yours, a successful entrepreneur, CEO, etc.) and you immediately think: “I wish I had their talent,” you’re unlikely to take the action steps needed to actually get better.

Says Kotler, “People who adopt this kind of thinking place unnecessary limits on their progress: it’s much harder for people with fixed mindsets to set goals or push themselves, since they see growth as futile.”

If you believe you can’t improve, you’re not going to put in the time and work needed to actually see improvement.

On the other hand, if you notice that same high performer and decide to figure out how they got so good at what they do (read books, take courses, hire a coach, etc.), and then put in the necessary time and work—you’re going to see improvement.

Having a growth mindset is an important first step toward goal setting and achievement, because this is the mindset you’ll need to even allow yourself to try.

Approach #2: You Proactively Set Short- and Long-Term Goals 

Having a growth mindset is the first step in the process, but it won’t get you very far if you don’t do any actual work. To really see progress, you have to get really good at setting both short- and long-term clear goals, then chunking them down into manageable steps.

For example, if you have a goal of competing in a Triathlon, your goal setting process might look like this:

High, hard goal: Compete in triathlon. It’s important that you give yourself a realistic amount of time to work toward this bigger goal. This will depend on a number of factors, including your current fitness level, current known weaknesses, amount of time to train each week, available triathlon dates that work in your schedule, etc.

Short-term goals: You’ll want to find or create a training plan that addresses all of the above and ideally breaks down your training into days, weeks, and months. The key is to chunk your goals into smaller, manageable steps that then allow you to track your progress and adjust as needed while working toward your bigger, long-term goal.

For more on how to get better at goal setting, check out this article.

Approach #3: You Place Effort Before Talent 

“Effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.” – Carol Dweck

If you want to really make progress toward a long-term goal, you not only have to believe you can get better, you also need to place effort before talent.

For example, it’s easy to look at a group of little kids on a soccer field and see that a few of the kids naturally seem to know what to do with the ball, are more coordinated, and seem to possess more athleticism than the other kids.

What you can’t see from this picture alone is what will happen with the non-athletic looking kids if they put in the necessary time and practice. If they work hard and their more talented-seeming peers don’t, many of them will actually surpass the other kids at some point.

Believing that effort counts more than talent is a piece of developing a growth mindset.

Approach #4: You Cultivate Grit. 

Another key mindset shift is learning to develop grit.

Developing grit means combining persistence, ambition, and self-discipline in the pursuit of big goals that might take months, years, or even decades to accomplish.

Grit is what allows you to stick with your goals even when you hit inevitably hit obstacles or plateaus.

Says Dweck, “The passion for stretching yourself and sticking to it, even (or especially) when it’s not going well, is the hallmark of the growth mindset. This is the mindset that allows people to thrive during some of the most challenging times in their lives.”

For more on learning to develop grit around fitness and health, check out this article.

Approach #5: You Embrace Failures and Imperfections 

Having a growth mindset can be incredibly vulnerable because when you allow yourself to try at something you care about, you’re also setting yourself up for possible failure.

After all, if you try really hard at something and ultimately fail, it’s expected that you’ll feel disappointed.

But being open to failure is a key piece of developing a growth mindset. If you don’t allow yourself to fail, you won’t allow yourself to really try.

“In the fixed mindset, everything is about the outcome,” says Dweck. “If you fail—or if you’re not the best—it’s all been wasted. The growth mindset allows people to value what they’re doing regardless of the outcome. They’re tackling problems, charting new courses, working on important issues. Maybe they haven’t found the cure for cancer, but the search was deeply meaningful.”

The key here is to change your mindset around your goal to focus on the process—rather than the outcome alone.

Approach #6: You Embrace the Word “Yet.”

When you discover that you can’t do something, flip the script. Instead of, “I’ll never be able to do this,” try, “I can’t do it… yet.”

This can apply to nearly anything in fitness:

I can’t do pull-ups… yet.

I can’t run a 5k… yet.

I can’t do 100 burpees in a row without stopping… yet.

This reframe gives you room to grow, and helps gets rid of that feeling that a challenge is impossible.

Because if you can’t do something you want to be able to do, you likely just haven’t put in enough time or effort to get there yet. The more challenging the goal, the harder you’ll have to work for it.

It all starts with a growth mindset. From there, it takes the right goal setting techniques, developing and cultivating grit, and embracing failure as part of the process.

You’re not there… yet. Wherever you’re at, keep going.

“We like to think of our champions and idols as superheroes who were born different from us. We don’t like to think of them as relatively ordinary people who made themselves extraordinary.”Carol Dweck

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