As a new fitness professional, you know that getting your clients to adopt a new habit of physical activity takes more than an assessment, a fitness program and your captivating smile. It requires an in-depth understanding and implementation of behavior change principles.
Whether they want to increase physical activity, eat healthier or learn new ways to cope with stress, your clients’ long-term success depends in large part on you.
1. Hone Your People Skills
Multiple studies suggest strong working relationships boost client adherence to behavior change programs — so start there. People skills are paramount when it comes to influencing behavior; don’t miss any opportunity to sharpen yours. Practice active listening and good body language to show people you’re interested in who they are and what they have to say. Show genuine caring and concern for the challenges they face. It’s been said that people don’t care how much you know until they know how much you care —that’s especially true when it comes to health behavior change.
Establishing good rapport and building trust begins from your very first point of contact, whether it’s by phone, email, text or in-person. Every interaction should be professional, respectful and friendly. As you review health history forms, ask questions to reveal client experiences, interests, and preferences. Look for common ground — do you share a passion for baseball? Do you both raise teenagers? Getting to know each other within professional boundaries helps you better relate to each other and fosters a positive working relationship. Just be cautious about oversharing so you can keep the focus on your client.
2. Honor Client Differences
Recognizing different personality and learning styles helps you deliver the right level of service in the right way at the right time. Some clients want just the basics of what to do and how to do it; others will ask for details of why each step is important. Some are very verbal and social while others are quiet and reserved. Honoring these differences shows respect and makes you more effective.
Asking the right questions early on facilitates self-discovery and offers insight into how clients operate:
- When you’ve tried to make this change before, what worked well? What didn’t?
- What’s motivating you to make this change now?
- How do you learn best? Do you want the big picture or the details?
- How can I best support you to reach your goals (i.e. phone or e-mail follow-ups in between sessions, reading lists, helping increase social support)?
- What character strengths (i.e. persistence, creativity, curiosity, love of learning) will help you on this path to wellness?
With experience and training, you can skillfully adapt your approach to individual differences, shaping your clients’ behavior and increasing their odds of long-term success. Read up on personality and learning styles, how to recognize them and how to communicate effectively with all kinds of people.
3. Cultivate Client Self-Management
The ultimate goal of any health behavior change program is to help clients fully integrate the desired behavior into everyday life. To accomplish this, they need self-management skills. You can plant the seeds from the beginning of your work together. Here are a few examples:
Environmental control. Help your clients change their physical and social environments to support their goals. If one of your clients wants to eat more produce, encourage her to create a weekly meal plan and shopping list to get a variety of fruits and vegetables in the house. If another wants to exercise more, encourage him to hang out with friends who make physical activity a priority.
SMART goals. Walk clients through the process of setting SMART behavioral goals that are specific, measurable, attainable, relevant and time-bound. They should focus on behaviors clients need to implement (such as walking for 30 minutes, three times a week) to achieve their long-term goals (losing 20 pounds over six months).
Behavior contracts. A written agreement is a powerful tool in shaping behavior. Work with your client to create one, outlining both the SMART goals and clear expectations for themselves and you.
Enjoyment. Help your client make the right choices more appealing, such as exercising with a friend or hosting a potluck dinner featuring healthy recipes.
Self-monitoring. Tracking fitness activities, keeping a meal diary and weighing in once a week are examples of client self-monitoring. Using of a 1-10 scale is also helpful for self-rating confidence in performing goal behaviors.
The science of behavior change is a rapidly expanding field; this post touches on just a few basics to get you started. Check out other resources, such as the ACE Health Coach Manual, which offers in-depth guidance on this exciting topic.