Michael Mantell, PhD, has spent the past 40 years urging people to change their minds to improve their bodies. Mantell, director of behavior science coaching at Premier Fitness Camp in San Diego, shares this story:

“I worked with an obese, gay male client, who finally came to realize that he’d been [too] humiliated to go to a gym because his mindset was, ÔÇÿPeople will laugh at me. I look horrible naked. I can’t ever have a lover because I can’t stand how I look, so how will anyone else? I can’t ever lose weight, because deep down I know I’m a failure.’”

Mindset training helped turn things around, Mantell said.

“By confronting each of these negative guiding thoughts, this client was able to see how unfactual they were, and he could replace them with more accurate and logical thoughts. He’s now well on his way to achieving a healthier weight, sees a trainer three times a week and is currently engaged to a gentleman he met at the gym!

“It all began by recognizing, rejecting and replacing his negative mindset with the help of a simple question: ÔÇÿIs what you are believing true?’”

That’s the power of mindset. Mindset is more than a popular gym buzzword. It is a long-studied concept in the fields of cognitive and positive psychology that provides a foundation for a scientific understanding of how beliefs influence behavior.

Mindset matters for fitness professionals because it can help trainers and clients overcome the frustrations that arise as a result of people seeing the world in different ways. Think about it: Clients hire trainers and other fitness pros for help in achieving fitness and weight goals. But no matter how good we are at fitness assessment, program design and exercise instruction, some people do not respond to our efforts. Why does this happen? It may be because we haven’t addressed the clients’ mindset.

Let’s examine the meaning of mindset and review current scientific understanding of how beliefs affect certain behaviors. You may find that these insights hold the key to unlocking barriers to behavioral change and helping clients achieve better health and well-being.

What Are Mindsets?

“Mindsets can be thought of as psychological orientations that shape how we view the world around us,” says Derek D. Rucker, PhD, professor of entrepreneurial studies in marketing at Northwestern University in Evanston, Illinois. Rucker points to the popular analogy of people seeing a glass of water as either half-empty or half-full. Mindset is why two people look at the same facts and draw opposite conclusions.

Mantell adds: “Mindsets describe a collection of thoughts or beliefs that guide all behavior.” More specifically, he says, mindsets “comprise inclinations and tendencies toward behaviors and attitudes that drive how we react to daily events, conditions, circumstances, people and situations.”

For study purposes, mindset researchers have identified different constructs or “frames of mind” in which contrasting views of an identical situation can directly influence perception. This explains why two otherwise similar people in similar circumstances (like two different clients) can reach opposing conclusions about the right way to respond to those circumstances. This is significant because a trainer may use the same coaching technique and achieve great success with one client, yet be unable to help another and be unable to identify the reason.

Promotion vs. Prevention Mindsets

Science has identified two distinct mindsets—promotion and prevention—that have a direct impact on setting and achieving goals. “In the promotion versus prevention model, a promotion-focused person might exercise with a focus on ideals and gains associated with living a healthier lifestyle,” says Rucker. “Another person might exercise with a prevention-focused mindset. This person might focus on avoiding becoming fat and [on the] means to prevent this from happening. Both individuals are pursuing the same behavior, but via distinct approaches.”

Rucker and a colleague conducted a research review of mindset studies to examine how mindsets might affect portion control (Rucker & He 2016). Some researchers have concluded that a prevention mindset may help more with portion control, since prevention-minded people are better at resisting temptations when pursuing a goal. People with a promotion mindset appear more sensitive to making gains and more responsive to success feedback. In contrast, people with a prevention mindset are motivated by failure feedback, which intensifies their determination not to lose ground and strengthens their commitment to their goals.

Study authors noted, however, that mindsets are not fixed: The same person may have a different mindset depending on the situation. And one mindset is not necessarily better than another. For example, a promotion mindset may be helpful in initiating a goal of changing a behavior (e.g., eating healthier foods), while a prevention mindset may be more effective in maintaining the behavior once the goal has been achieved (e.g., avoiding junk foods) (Rucker & He 2016).

University of Minnesota researchers compared how well people with promotion and prevention mindsets succeeded at sticking with their decision to quit smoking or to lose weight. At the 6-month follow-up, promotion-minded people proved to be more successful at quitting smoking and losing weight. But a 1-year follow-up found that people with a prevention focus were more likely to be smoke-free and maintaining their weight loss. The researchers concluded that encouraging the more helpful mindset for the specific task—i.e., changing behavior or maintaining behavior—might produce the greatest success over time (Fuglestad, Rothman & Jeffery 2008).

Fixed vs. Growth Mindsets

Scientists have also learned a lot about the difference between fixed and growth mindsets—particularly in the context of education. People with a growth mindset see the world as changeable, while people with a fixed mindset see it as unchangeable.

For more information, please see “What Is Mindset Training? A Primer” in the online IDEA Library or in the July–August 2016 print edition of IDEA Fitness Journal. If you cannot access the full article and would like to, please contact the IDEA Inspired Service Team at 800-999-4332, ext. 7.