Mental Fitness – Lesson 11 – from knowledge to goals


Greetings and welcome to Lesson 11 of my ‘Introduction to Mental Fitness’ course. If you are new to the course, check out the introductory post first.

Also a quick reminder that for Flinders students, these lessons can found on our FLO site as well, where you can chat about these lessons privately with other students, as comments left on this blog are visible to the general public.

Welcome to Lesson 11 of the Introduction to Mental Fitness Course.

In the last lesson we actually got started on building mental fitness. I invited you to pick a simple behaviour/lifestyle change that you wanted to make, that you could use as a mental fitness project – i.e. something to experiment with in order to better understand the mental fitness model. As a reminder I’ve chosen ‘using my standing desk more‘ as my mental fitness project.

Having picked something to work on, I then invited you to think about how you acquire knowledge about that change. I talked specifically about finding health information online, given how common it is for people to get their knowledge in this way. I encouraged you to consider the source of the information, whether the information was evidence-based and how easy it was to engage with the information.

In today’s lesson I want to explore the next steps. I’ll start by giving a quick overview of what I learned about the evidence for my chosen behaviour change – standing desks. Then I’ll talk about how learning about a lifestyle/behaviour change alters your attitude towards that change. Then I will discuss setting some initial goals for the change you want to make.

The purpose of breaking it down in this way is to illustrate the core components of building mental fitness in action: vision/goals, attitude/knowledge, behaviour.


What I learned about the change I am trying to make 

As I mentioned before, I have a sit-stand desk in my office. The lifestyle change that I want to make, to help illustrate the mental fitness model in practice, is to use the sit-stand desk more often. I currently use it in the morning from about 9.00 to 11.00.

After last week’s lesson where I invited you to pick a simple lifestyle/behaviour change and learn more about it, I went and educated myself a bit more about sit-stand desks.

I did this by doing a search for ‘sit-stand’ and ‘standing’ desks on Google Scholar. Google Scholar is a decent database of academic articles on various different topics. As a uni student,  you have access to an excellent range of databases for searching for academic literature – If I am doing a formal search for literature as part of a research study, I tend to use specific databases, but for general searches I regularly use Google Scholar.

I found a bunch of scientific papers on ‘sit-stand desks’.

What I took from those papers was the following:

  • sedentary behaviour is bad and linked to a range of negative health outcomes such as diabetes, cardiovascular, mortality, obesity
  • the negative effects of extended periods of sitting are independent of other metrics of physical activity (my job involves a lot of sitting)
  • sit-stand desks have been trialled as a potential option to reduce sitting time and improve health
  • sit-stand desks do reduce sitting time and increase calorie expenditure, but whether than translates into health benefits is at this stage uncertain
  • sit-stand desks can be used in continuous blocks or by mixing sitting and standing over the course of the day
  • sit-stand desks do not lead to decreases in performance or health (i.e. they seem safe physically and psychologically)
  • subjectively, people using the desks generally report it as a positive experience and report improvements in energy, focus, productivity and mood
  • there can be some negative impacts of using these desks, particularly fatigue and soreness in legs and feet

Overall, the conclusion of many authors in the literature is that these desks might have some benefits but those benefits are primarily subjective and objective health benefits have yet to be convincingly shown.

I’d say that is consistent with my experience. I find using the desk leads to an increase in fatigue, leg and foot soreness, but overall I feel more energised. When I am working at the standing desk, I can pace the room easily when I think. I am in a better position to see out the window. When people come to chat with me in my office the conversations occurs standing up which focuses the conversation (and shortens it I reckon). I find typing standing up is a better position for my neck, shoulder and arms. I doubt these subjective benefits will translate into serious health improvements, but they are definitely worth it to me.

Therefore I decided, based on my reading and experience, that pursuing increased time at my standing desk was a worthwhile goal. This is done with the knowledge that the overall benefits of it are likely to be mild.

How did you go with better understanding a lifestyle change you want to make?

Going from knowledge -> attitude -> goals

Having spent some time getting to know a bit about the research on standing desks, I notice my attitude towards them has shifted. I see that they might have value, aren’t going to negatively impact my performance and may overall have a positive subjective impact. However, I also feel less pressure to use my sit-stand desk consistently knowing that current data doesn’t suggest I am missing out on important objective health improvements.

This illustrates a key component on making any kind of positive behaviour change. The more you understand about the change itself and the potential positive (or negative) consequences, the more refined your attitude and beliefs about the behaviour change get. When I learned that current research on sit-stand desks suggests subjective but not objective health benefits and compared this to my experience, I felt encouraged to continue using the desk but with less urgency.

The other thing that comes from increasing your knowledge about a behaviour change is practical knowledge about what might constitute a reasonable goal in terms of the change. For example, initially I thought the goal was to spend as much time standing as possible, but now I realise it might make more sense to aim for periods of sitting and standing throughout the day – i.e. changing position on a regular basis.

To use another example, say you wanted to take up meditation. In the process of reading and learning about meditation your attitudes and beliefs about meditation would change. You might come to understand meditation not as a form of relaxation but as a form of attention training. This would alter your willingness and desire to engage in meditation. You’d also learn about how to embed meditation practice in your life. Realising you could start training in meditation with only 10 minutes a day might similarly impact your willingness and desire to engage in meditation practice.


Your attitudes towards a given behaviour change shape the likelihood of you engaging in that behaviour change. Attitudes –> intentions –> action.

In the last lesson, I invited you to select a behaviour/lifestyle change you wanted to make, as a mental fitness project.

I said that if you didn’t know what to choose, you could pick from a couple I selected

  • going for a 10 minute walk each day
  • drinking an extra litre of water per day
  • scheduling specific times during the day to check on social media

If you had chosen the drinking extra water per day example, you might have found it difficult to find evidence to support extra water consumption, similar to this author –

This might have shifted your attitude towards extra water consumption.

When we are talking about lifestlye changes with the intention of improving our physical or mental health, we should, where possible have our attitudes shaped by what scientific evidence there is that the lifestlye change might help.

This is because other less reliable factors can shape our attitudes. For example, a close friend might tell you that they have been taking a multi-vitamin and feeling a lot better. You trust that person and value their opinion and decide to follow suit. But if you looked into it further, you’d discover that most vitamin supplenments do nothing and some might do more harm than good. You could achieve similar effects with relatively simple (and cheaper) dietary changes.

So it is very important to try where possible to have your attitudes towards different health and mental health producing activities shaped by scientific evidence, not other factors.

What do I mean by scientific evidence? The short answer to this quite complex question is I tend to look for evidence of the following:

  • Observational studies that show that people who engage in the behaviour show other positive outcomes. Such studies don’t prove the behaviour causes those other positive outcomes, but they do suggest those outcome co-occur.
  • Randomised controlled trials where one group does the behaviour and another matched group (control group) does not. If the group doing the behaviour show benefits compared to the control group, it is good evidence that the behaviour causes those benefits.
  • Basic science papers (e.g., from biology or chemistry) that show a plausible and logical reason why the behaviour could have positive benefits. For example, that a particular nutrient (e.g. vitamin D) is involved in a lot of processes related to mental health and mood.

In an ideal situation, you have evidence of all 3.

I try to do that in my work here at the university, recommending things that I feel comfortable have at least some scientific evidence to support them. It is not always perfect as the scientific evidence is always developing, but it is an important starting point. I even apply this to the recommendations I make about how to study.



Assuming you’ve looked into your desired lifestyle change and feel it is valid (scientifically) and relevant to you, your next step is to translate your intentions into a goal.

I talk quite a bit about goals. I think they are important.

It is worth distinguishing here that there are goals at different levels.

There are the bigger picture goals – where you want to head in your life, the things you want to achieve, the outcomes you want to make happen. I sometimes refer to these types of goals as a ‘vision you are working towards’.

But the types of goals we are talking about in this lesson are the little micro goals, that reflect the changes you want to make in your life.

For example, I’ve set the micro goal of spending at least 5 hours, on days where I am working in my office, standing at my desk. This can be in one go, or preferably spread out across the day. This micro goal is in the service of a bigger goal which is to spend less of my life sedentary and to make many aspects of my life consistent with good health (along with my dietary choices, sleep, alcohol use etc).

Having a vision you are working towards, as well as micro goals of how to get there is a critical component of building mental fitness. There are many things you can spend your time and attention focused on. You should be focused on those things that bring you closer to the life you want to live and the values you want to live.

Another way to look at goals is to talk about process and outcome goals. Outcome goals are the ultimate consequence you are seeking (in my case, less sedentary time). A process goal is how I am going to get there (5 hours standing desk each working day).


Reflection Exercise

Have you identified a simple behaviour you want to change or introduce, to use as a mental fitness project?

Did you spend any time learning about the logistics of engaging in that behaviour? If yes, what did you learn? If no, why?

How did it change your attitudes towards the behaviour you selected?


Suggested Tasks

If you’ve been following along with the suggested tasks of previous lessons, then you’ll have a notebook or electronic document in which you are completing these tasks.

From the previous lessons you will have a sub-heading called ‘Goals’ under which you’ve noted a simple lifestyle change that you could use as a mental fitness project as well as the results of the research that you did into that goal.

This week I want you to try and translate what you’ve learned about that lifestyle change into a specific goal of what change you would make in your life.

As noted above, I have translated my goal of ‘using my standing desk more often’ into a specific goal of 5 hours of standing time per day.

What is the specific change you are going to try making in your life?


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