Think about the last time you tried something new on your health and fitness journey and struggled with it.
Did the struggle make you feel hopeless? Did you consider giving up (“I’ll never be good at this, so I might as well not even try”)?
Or did encountering the struggle give you a boost of motivation (“I won’t let this thing beat me. I’ll keep trying until I get it”)?
If you responded the first way, you most likely have what Stanford psychologist Carol Dweck and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success calls a fixed mindset. In this way of thinking, effort is seen as a bad thing. If you have to put effort into something, that means you’re imperfect. Having to work hard is a defect. If you don’t succeed, or you’re not the very best, everything feels pointless — your efforts wasted.
The alternative, a growth mindset, means that you’re focused on overall growth, not just one specific outcome.
You run to get better at running, not just to win a single race. You train to become stronger and more well-rounded, not just to get one PR. You challenge yourself to try new things and grow as an athlete over time.
With a growth mindset, your effort is never wasted because you’re never focused solely on results. Effort is worthwhile regardless of the outcome. Putting in effort is meaningful because in trying, you allow yourself to take a chance and go all-in, even if you don’t end up where you expected you would.
Why Mindset isn’t Always So Black and White
For most of us, our mindset (growth or fixed) shifts over time, and between different contexts. More likely than not, you believe you’re good at — and maybe can even get better at — certain fitness-related 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. Maybe others have always told you that you’re 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 solid 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’ve been told that runners can’t both be good at running and 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 to 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 upper body strength gains.
If you believe you can’t improve, you’re unlikely to see any improvement.
The good news is that no matter where you fall on the mindset spectrum right now, you can change it. And when you do, you’ll make more progress on your fitness journey than you ever before thought possible.
How to Develop a Growth Mindset Around Health and Fitness
When I was growing up, if I tried something new and didn’t immediately show a natural ability for it, I would give up right away. I had a total fixed mindset around anything fitness-related, assuming I was either “good” (e.g., born with natural abilities) or “bad” (lacking any natural talent). As a result, I didn’t try very hard and didn’t make any progress.
It took years of experimenting and pushing myself to challenge my abilities to finally convince myself that hard work and effort wasn’t a waste of time. As a result, I went from not being able to do a single push-up in my early twenties to now being able to do some pretty cool things, including pull-ups, handstands, and getting punched in the face for fun.
These days, I firmly 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.
The following strategies will help you develop a growth mindset around your health and fitness journey:
1. Learn to Place Effort Before Talent
Author Steven Kotler writes 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 admire a high-performing athlete and you immediately think: “I wish I had their talent,” you’re unlikely to take the action steps needed to actually get better.
“People who adopt this kind of thinking,” says Kotler, “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.”
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 (follow their training plan, learn their nutrition strategies, hire a coach, etc.), and put in the necessary time and work, you’ll begin to see improvement.
Sure, you might not start as the strongest, most coordinated, or most athletically gifted (I sure didn’t). But as Dweck puts it, no matter your ability, “effort is what ignites that ability and turns it into accomplishment.”
2. 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 good at setting what psychologists call high, hard goals — those faraway goals that give our lives meaning and purpose — then learn to chunk them down into manageable steps.
For example, if you have a long-term goal of competing in an Ironman triathlon, your goal setting process might look something like this:
High, hard goal: Compete in Ironman 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, known weaknesses, past experience, amount of time you have available 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, and maybe even years. The key is to chunk your goals into smaller, manageable steps that allow you to track your progress and adjust as needed while working toward your high, hard goal.
3. Embrace Failure as Part of the Journey
Allowing yourself to put real effort into something can be vulnerable and scary. After all, if you allow yourself to try hard at something you care about, you’re also setting yourself up for possible failure.
While being disappointed at failure is natural, the key is not to dwell on it. Let yourself be bummed out for a day or two, then make a plan to adjust and keep going.
This is one area most athletes and weekend warriors have a leg up on the non-fitness-oriented: by repeated failures in the gym, you learn to become more resilient. Through training, you learn that one failed rep today doesn’t mean you’ll fail again tomorrow.
Understanding that failure is part of the journey and not something to be avoided is key to developing a growth mindset. By changing your mindset around your goals to value the process rather than the outcome alone, even failed attempts can become deeply meaningful and lead to long-term growth on your health and fitness journey.
After all, the only way to truly fail on your journey is to quit altogether. So keep going.
Photo by Coen van de Broek on Unsplash