Long-distance runner overcomes mental challenges.

“Mindset” is quickly becoming one of the trigger words in health and fitness. Yeah, that fluffy, somewhat ambiguous term that is usually accompanied by other pleonastic terms, like “persistence” and “work ethic,” is coming under legitimate scientific scrutiny—and by exercise scientists, of all people. If you believe what is able to get through the peer review process of scientific journals, we now know that that dubious feel-good word actually has some meaning and can create some real value in your life, and maybe even become an important component of your health.

In a recent published study, which I think will soon become a landmark in our field, researchers examined the relationship between exercise and health and how it may be moderated by subconscious changes in mindset. 84 participants who worked as hotel attendants, working in seven different hotels, were separated into an informed and a control group. The participants in the informed group were told that their work responsibilities, which primarily consist of cleaning hotel rooms, was good exercise that could help them meet accepted physical activity guidelines. The control group received no information. There was no other council, and the dietary and outside exercise habits of the participants was not monitored. After four weeks, not only did the informed group believe that they were getting more regular exercise, but also the measurements suggested that that was absolutely the case. In four weeks, with no other information or monitoring, the informed group experienced an average weight loss of over two pounds, a decrease in blood pressure, and statistically significant improvements in heart rate and body composition. Did the informed group become more cognizant of healthy lifestyle behaviors and actually eat better and exercise more? Did simply being made aware that they were in fact exercising every time they came to work have some psychological effect that initiated positive physiological adaptation? We don’t know, but the results are fascinating nonetheless.

What we do know is that negative thoughts have real effects on our decision-making. We’ve all heard the famous Henry Ford quote, “Whether you believe you can do a thing or not, you are right,” echoed to us from parents or coaches, and science has revealed that this isn’t just more psychological gobbledygook. In fact, simply believing you are overweight has been shown to reduce the chances of success with a weight management program and will also predict future weight gain. Why this happens is basic neuroscience: negative affect actually invalidates accessible cognition, which alters our relational and item-specific processing. In less sciency terms, negative thoughts literally shut down specific parts of our brain, eliminating many options and narrowly focusing on harmful emotions, such as fear, anger, and stress. This is actually a valuable physiological response when faced with danger: when you come across a bear while hiking, it’s a really good thing that your brain literally turns the power off to the components that may suggest you pick up the nearest rock and throw it or growl back, and focuses solely on running. But, in daily life, you want your brain firing on all cylinders and capable of providing more sensory input responses than fight or flight.

Having a positive mindset will help you make those daily lifestyle decisions that are necessary to reach your health and fitness goals, and it is as easy as 1,2…3,4,5:

1. Self-efficacy.

Research has proven that believing you have control over your life results in better decision-making, better dietary decisions, and more physical activity. Tell yourself that hitting that next fitness milestone is all up to you and you are more likely to commit to the actions that will make it possible.

2. Surround yourself with like-minded people.

We are just beginning to understand the power of our environment and social networks in our decision-making and health outcomes. In a landmark obesity study, it was discovered that the lifestyle habits of your friends was one of the greatest determinants of your own diet and exercise habits (shocker), but more interestingly, that when a friend gains weight, your chances of gaining weight increase by 57%. Another study found that there are three pathways involved in this social phenomenon: collaboration, peer pressure, and what they refer to as “monkey see, monkey do.” If you are having difficulty making progress, examine the people you are surrounding yourself with.

3. Food is not a reward; exercise is not a punishment.

Food truly is the best medicine and exercise isn’t far behind; they are the best way of practicing self-care and you need both in abundance to reach your health and fitness goals. Social norms suggest that we go out for pizza and ice cream when we make the dean’s list or get a promotion, and then punish ourselves for the binging session by pushing the intensity of the next day’s workout a little further. Just because it is a normal occurrence doesn’t mean it makes sense. As the “Mind-Set Matters” study detailed earlier clearly points out, changing how you view food and exercise makes it more likely that you’ll make better decisions.

4. Focus on the journey.

Doing my best Anthony Robbins imitation, one of my oft-repeated adages is that every day, every meal, every workout, and every night’s sleep is an opportunity to get healthier, stronger, and better conditioned. Contemporary research is beginning to show that practicing healthy lifestyle habits is actually far more important when it comes to quality of life, longevity, and various biomarkers of health than weight or how you look in the mirror. Even if you find the progress slow, recognize that today’s workout and that whole food meal you followed it up with were positive steps on the road towards optimum health. Attack every day, every action.

5. Identify your triggers.

We all have them, those specific thoughts or events that ultimately result in some takeout therapy or skipping the next workout. Accept them, consider methods to avoid them, and deliberately think about what you can do to regain consciousness before you see the bottom of that quart of ice cream. Count to 10, break your chain of thought by saying “stop” in a loud tone, do whatever it takes. It’s perfectly OK to take a step backwards. Imperfection is human, but don’t let it lead you down a cycle of negativity.


Dr. Damian Rodriguez is the health and exercise scientist for doTERRA International, LLC. He holds a doctorate in health science, a master’s degree in exercise physiology, and countless professional certifications. He has spent most of his life researching nutrition, exercise, and the lifestyle behaviors associated with optimal health. Along with his passion for health, as someone who lives with Asperger’s Syndrome, he is also involved in bringing awareness to autism spectrum disorders. There are varying opinions about many health and fitness topics. His opinions are his own and not necessarily that of doTERRA International, LLC. Consult your healthcare provider before making any changes to diet and exercise.