Growth mindsets have become quite a popular topic, and for a good reason. Today we have an enormous amount of empirical evidence to support the value of holding a growth mindset for goal success.
Mindsets (more formally known as implicit theories) are defined as either “growth” (incremental theory) or “fixed” (entity theory) (Dweck & Leggett, 1988). One’s mindset regarding a specific attribute determines belief about the malleability of that attribute. For example, if you think that your weight is not something that can be changed, you have a fixed mindset regarding body weight. Along with the particular mindset one holds often comes a handful of other behaviors and strategies that can either help or hinder success. If you have a fixed mindset about intelligence, you are also likely to view effort towards improving your intelligence as worthless; you might be quick to ignore helpful criticism, and you are likely to avoid challenges to your intelligence at all costs. On the flip side, with a growth mindset regarding intelligence, you will identify effort as a mechanism to mastery and you are more likely to accept criticism and challenges as opportunities to learn.
Although the majority of mindset research is found in the academic and intelligence domain, it’s more recently spread to a variety of areas, including health and fitness. One example of this is our work, published in Psychology of Sport and Exercise (Orvidas, Burnette, & Russell, 2018). This research was the first of its kind to specifically examine mindsets about fitness and their role in exercise frequency.
In the first study, we had 117 participants complete a survey that included a variety of health and fitness related measures: mindsets of fitness (beliefs about the malleability of fitness level and ability to become a more fit individual), exercise self-efficacy (ability to complete exercise intentions in the face of obstacles), fitness self-value (the degree to which one finds personal value in exercise), and past exercise frequency. The results of this study revealed that a stronger growth mindset about fitness predicted more frequent exercise in the past. Further, this relationship was mediated by physical exercise self-efficacy and fitness self-value; growth mindsets of fitness were significantly related to both self-efficacy and self-value, which in turn predicted more frequent reports of exercise in the past.
The results from this study were correlational, so in order to further test this relationship between mindsets of fitness and exercise frequency, we conducted an experimental study to test the relationship between mindsets of fitness and intentions to exercise in the future. In this second study, we randomly assigned participants to either a growth mindset or a fixed mindset condition (N = 314) by having them read mock news articles. The articles either strongly depicted the malleable nature (growth condition) or the unchangeable nature (fixed condition) of one’s fitness level and ability to become a more fit individual. In order to disguise the purpose of reading the news article, participants were asked to rate the comprehensibility of the article “for use in a future study.” Then they completed a survey with the same measures included in the first study.
Before diving into the results of the second study, we needed to check to make sure that the article manipulation worked — and it did. Participants that were randomly assigned to the growth mindset condition reported significantly stronger growth mindsets of fitness than participants in the fixed mindset condition. With such a simple reading manipulation exercise, we were able to shift participants’ mindsets of fitness in a particular direction. Findings from this study were analogous to the results from the first study. Those reporting stronger growth mindsets of fitness also tended to report stronger physical exercise self-efficacy and fitness self-value, which in turn predicted more intention to exercise in the future.
Given the continued low rates of physical activity and the rising rates of obesity in the U.S., it has become clear that simply providing people with knowledge of the benefits of exercise and negative consequences of living a sedentary lifestyle doesn’t seem to be enough to elicit behavior change. Understanding the mechanisms underlying why some individuals chose to exercise more than others is of timely importance. The studies presented here provide meaningful information regarding these possible mechanisms — namely, mindsets.
According to the results of these studies, an individual’s belief regarding the malleable nature of fitness might play an important role in the amount of exercise they engage in; this is because of the positive effect mindsets have on self-efficacy and self-value related to exercise. Further research should be done here, as the results are purely based on self-report data. As you can guess, what people report happened in the past and what they intend to do in the future do not always match up with their actual behaviors, and this is especially true with something like exercise. Nonetheless, these findings have implications for future interventions and health behavior change specialists, such as health coaches and personal trainers, whose primary aim is to encourage increased and sustained physical activity in individuals.
These findings are described in the article entitled Mindsets applied to fitness: Growth beliefs predict exercise efficacy, value and frequency, recently published in the journal Psychology of Sport and Exercise.
- Dweck, C. S., & Leggett, E. L. (1988). A social-cognitive approach to 427 motivation and personality. Psychological Review, 95, 256–273. doi: 798 428 10.1037/0033-295X.95.2.256
- Orvidas, K., Burnette, J. L., & Russell, V. M. (2018). Mindsets applied to fitness: Growth beliefs predict exercise efficacy, value and frequency. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 36, 156-161.