Mental Toughness Really is the Key to Getting Fit, Study Shows

Members of the United States Naval Academy freshman class getting fit and building mental toughness during physical training

Members of the United States Naval Academy freshman class getting fit and building mental toughness during physical training | Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Getting fit isn’t easy, and there isn’t a bulletproof plan that will get you there, either. It’s not something that happens overnight. It’s more like a long slog through the mud, with numerous ups and downs, spikes in progress, and periods where you’ll see regression. Simply put, losing weight or putting on muscle is incredibly difficult and takes an extraordinary amount of mental toughness, patience, and discipline.

While many people can do quite well with enough patience and a disciplined regimen in the gym and kitchen, mental toughness — or the right frame of mind, at least — is ultimately what’s going to take you further than you expected.

There’s been a lot of time and effort poured into researching just how our state of mind influences our productivity and rate of success. That might include career achievements, for example, or simply reaching certain fitness goals like a PR on the track. But most of us don’t take it that seriously. We know we need to have the right frame of mind to knock it out of the park, but a lot of the motivational posters and top-40 anthems don’t really hit that nerve as intended. This can lead to many uninspired workouts.

New research shows that you may want to start taking your mindset a lot more seriously if you want a better workout.

The power of the mind

Fitness man doing bench triceps dips

Fitness man doing bench triceps dips | iStock.com/emiliozv

According to a recent study, the power of positive thinking and mental toughness actually has measurable effects when it comes to getting fit. Researcher Hendrik Mothes, from the University of Freiburg’s sport science department, found that when people simply believe that exercise is going to be effective, it is. Essentially, it’s proof that positive thinking can and will lead to better results.

The study, published in the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, says that people who go into a workout with a solid belief that they’re improving themselves end up actively doing so with a more spirited bout of exercise. It’s almost like a placebo effect in action — the simple act of believing ends up improving outcomes.

Man working out on beach

Man working out on beach | iStock.com

The study included 76 men between the ages of 18 and 32 who exercised for 30 minutes using a bicycle machine. “Beforehand, the test subjects were separated into different groups and shown one of several short films that either praised the positive effects of cycling on health or not. In addition, the researchers asked the test subjects whether they had already believed in the positive effects of physical activity before beginning the study,” a press release said. “The participants filled out questionnaires asking them about their well-being and their mood before and after the exercise.”

Subjects with positive attitudes outperformed, and saw better results, than those who were less positive.

Mental toughness and discipline

Men training on exercise bikes

Men training on exercise bikes | iStock.com

This is related to something we’ve seen before in endurance athletes, a strong sense of mental toughness and positive thinking has shown to improve finishing times for long-distance runners. By willing themselves to persevere, these athletes actually perform better on the track. It’s mental toughness in action, and at its finest. Mothes’s research backs up this concept.

If that doesn’t make you want to become a glass half-full type of person, nothing will.

But the key here, or the takeaway that you can try to use to further your own fitness goals, is you need to be mentally prepared to handle the rigors of exercise and go all-out. If you go in with a bad attitude, you’re going to half-ass things. This might mean cutting your sets short, finishing  your run early, or skipping entire exercises. But if you have a positive attitude, and actually want to see results? You’ll follow through.

male athlete in the gym preparing for a deadlift

Man getting ready for a deadlift | iStock.com

So the key take away? Develop a strong sense of discipline — particularly when nobody else is watching. It’s tough, but it’s entirely possible. It’s just another element of personal fitness that you need to work toward.

Even that requires the right attitude, however. Just remember this: Get your head straight before heading to the gym or embarking on any serious attempt at getting in shape.

Follow Sam on Twitter @Sliceofginger and Facebook