The reasons why someone embarks on a wellness-related behavior-change journey—or even shows up at the gym on a particular morning—are both deeply personal and connected to their goals and values. So, how often do you check in on what motivates each of your clients? And, how might shifts in the sources of their motivation alter your approach to the day-to-day work of being a health coach or exercise professional?

The truth is, most health and exercise professionals are outliers when it comes to their attitudes about physical activity and exercise and may find it difficult to connect with clients whose history in this area might be very different than their own. Unfortunately, most clients don’t typically love going to the gym or eating healthy and are struggling each and every day to motivate themselves to stay on track. Having the empathy to step into your clients’ shoes and see the struggles and obstacles they face is vital to their long-term success and your ongoing collaboration.

But first, you have to know what motivates them.

The question of why people exercise was the focus of a recent Fitness Report conducted by mindbody. The survey asked more than 16,000 Americans about their wellness habits. One upside of the COVID-19 pandemic is that people seem to be more cognizant of the need to focus on their health. In fact, the report states that, “A clear majority now see wellness as worth prioritizing in life, and they’re willing to put the time in to do it.”

Additionally, the survey revealed that people today tend to have a broadened and more holistic outlook and include mental, physical and spiritual health in their definition of wellness. Interestingly, when people were asked to rate those three dimensions of wellness, “mental wellness” was deemed most important, and 77% said that being physically active helps their mental health.

Some of the most fascinating information to come from the survey is a comparison of pre-pandemic numbers to the numbers gathered toward the end of 2021 about the top reasons why people exercise.

Top reasons people exercised pre-pandemic:

  1. Control weight (35%)
  2. Feel good (33%)
  3. Live a long and healthy life (32%)

Top reasons people exercise today:

  1. Reduce stress (43%)
  2. Feel better mentally (43%)
  3. Look better physically (39%)

While managing weight and looking better will always be common and worthwhile goals, the shift seen in these numbers reflects a paradigm shift in why many people exercise. It’s important to note that these data do not necessarily signal a dramatic change in terms of people’s motivators and values—after all, 39% still list the desire to look better physically as being a top motivator—but instead a shift in terms of what they deem most important, with stress reduction and improved mental health now on equal footing with appearance-related goals.

These data also align with wider societal transformations in which prominent athletes such as Simone Biles and Michael Phelps and other public figures are becoming more open to discussing and prioritizing their mental health. In addition, the pandemic and the isolation and worry it brought were universal stressors, so it’s no wonder that people are thinking more about how to better manage their mental health.

What does this shift in motivation mean to the fitness industry?

Before diving into what this shift means for you as an individual health coach or exercise professional, Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, FACSM, ACE’s President and Chief Science Officer, suggests first taking a look at what it means to the fitness industry as a whole. Professional organizations, certification organizations (including ACE), continuing education providers, club chains, individual fitness facilities and every other element of the industry should consider whether they are serving their customers appropriately given our collective experience with the pandemic and the resulting shift in people’s motivations to stay active.

As Dr. Bryant explains, this survey highlights the importance of keeping an eye on industry trends and customer behavior, and then reflecting those changes in not only your approach to current and potential clients, but also your marketing, signage and visuals. The days of everything being about weight loss may be over, so do those before-and-after pictures on your website still have the same impact? Or, would you be better off also displaying images of people enjoying themselves and smiling while they move?

What does the focus on mental health mean to you as a health coach or exercise professional?

“People don’t always connect the dots between what they or their loved ones are feeling and what their clients may be experiencing,” says Dr. Bryant, “but the truth is, we’re all stressed to some degree right now.” So, it’s safe to assume that your clients are feeling that way, as well. This state of collective stress is not sustainable over the long haul as our default state of existence. In response, we as an industry and you as an individual health coach or exercise professional have an opportunity to deliver exercise and physical activity as natural and effective antidotes.

“There is a great opportunity to build on the connection between exercise and mental health,” concurs Chris Gagliardi, MS, Scientific Education Content Manager at ACE and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor and Medical Exercise Specialist. Some clients, he explains, may have thought of mental health as being completely separate from their physical health and were overwhelmed with the number of things they thought they had to do to manage their overall wellness—exercise and eating right for their physical health, and meditation for their mental health, for example—and created a brand-new stressor in their lives as they dwelled on how much they should be doing.

You can address this by saying something like, “So, improving your fitness and managing your stress are both important goals for you. What do you know about how these things work together?” Then, you can explain how physical activity yields not only benefits like weight loss and improved fitness, but also reduced stress and anxiety. The ACE Mover MethodTM is a fantastic way to use open-ended questions and collaborative conversation to learn more about what motivates a client.

By actively listening and asking powerful, open-ended questions, you can empower clients to overcome barriers to better manage their stress. This collaboration can be quite powerful. Dr. Bryant suggests asking clients to identify what strategies they are currently using to help themselves manage their stress, then following up by asking how effectively they perceive those strategies to be working. It may be easier for clients to continue, tweak or enhance a behavior they are already doing than to adopt a new one. (Note: Don't miss the video at the end of this article, in which Chris Gagliardi describes in greater detail how to use the ACE Mover Method to uncover a client's underlying motivations for wanting to make healthy lifestyle changes.)

Importantly, many mental health benefits are direct results of acute bouts of exercise (as opposed to the physical benefits, which often take time), so you can capitalize on that in your discussions with clients. For example, ask clients to rate their stress level on a scale of 1 to 10 before and after workouts and then track that number over time. You may even find that certain activities provide more stress relief for a particular client and then incorporate more of those activities into the overall program to better target the client’s goals.

If you’d like to utilize a more comprehensive assessment of a client’s stress, the 10-item Perceived Stress Scale can be used to gauge the level of stress a person has been experiencing over the past month (though you should be careful to stay within scope of practice and avoid using the results to in any way diagnose anxiety or depression).

Regardless of which method you choose, Gagliardi explains that if a client claims stress reduction as a primary motivator and you are able to show that their stress levels are going down during each workout as well as over the long term, you’ve added a new measure of program success and a new opportunity to set goals around stress management.

How does a change in a client’s motivators impact the work you do each day?

If you are developing an exercise program for a client, their source of motivation—whether it’s weight loss, stress management or any of the countless other reasons a person might choose to work with a health coach or exercise professional—may not directly impact the exercises you choose to include in the program. Cardiorespiratory exercise, muscular training, stretching and neuromotor exercise—those things don’t change no matter the client’s source of motivation.

What can change, however, is the way you integrate mindfulness, stress management and a holistic approach to wellness into everything from your conversation to your cueing. Consider the following strategies for adding a focus on stress reduction and mental health into your interactions with clients:

  • Revisit your preparticipation screening process: Check on how much you emphasize mental health and stress management during your screening and onboarding process. It might be a good idea to add more conversation about mental wellness to your initial discussions with new clients.
  • Modify your cueing: A lot of movement cues focus on the physical sensation or process of performing the exercise (e.g., “drive through the ground,” “brace your core by slightly stiffening the abdominals” and “keep your nose over the toes when landing a jump”). Consider adding a mind/body element to your cueing by saying things like, “As you lift the dumbbells from your chest and exhale, imagine all of the day’s stress leaving your body” or “As you walk on the treadmill, imagine that you are leaving all of your stressors behind.”
  • Focus on how the body works: Turning the client’s focus inward on the activation and relaxation of the muscles, the beating of their heart or the blood pumping through their veins during physical activity can take their mind off their stressors and redirect them to why they’re exercising in the first place. So, instead of just plodding away during their lunchtime walk (and carrying their stressors with them), clients can think about the benefits of physical activity and how their body is accomplishing the movement.
  • Change the conversation during the cool-down: “We always talk about the cool-down period after the workout as an opportunity to return the body back to homeostasis before we send clients out to continue their day,” says Gagliardi. “Maybe we can add a mind/body component to that.” For example, you can ask a client to think about releasing stress and anxiety as they perform stretches or low-intensity movements.
  • Listen and observe: While being mindful of your scope of practice and never straying into mental health counseling, listen and observe for signs of stress. You can also ask clients how they’re doing and then follow up with questions about how they’ve been sleeping, what stress-management strategies they’ve been using and whether there’s anything you can do to help during your time together.
  • Create a mental wellness challenge: A lot of health coaches and exercise professionals have had great success with online fitness challenges, which are a great way to create social support, motivate existing clients and reach new potential customers. Switch things up a bit by offering a mental wellness challenge, during which you provide tracking tools, stress-reduction strategies and sleep hygiene strategies, for example.
  • Take workouts outdoors: Adding more outdoor activity to a client’s program can enhance not only their physical health, but their mental health as well. Outdoor exercise appears to be more beneficial to mental health than indoor activities. “Green exercise,” as outdoor exercise is often called, can elevate a person’s mood and strengthen the impact of their workouts, as there appears to be a synergist benefit to exercising outside. In other words, the benefits of physical activity, including not only the prevention and management of obesity and other diseases, but also stress reduction and mental health improvement, are enhanced when workouts are performed outside.
  • Build your referral network: As Dr. Bryant says, “You won’t have all the answers, nor should you.” Be sure that your referral network includes the appropriate mental health professionals so that you can best serve your clients and provide whatever help they might need.

In Conclusion

Regular physical activity, especially if you adopt some of the strategies presented above, can prepare your clients to better handle the stressors of daily life and become more resilient in the face of increased stress levels. The survey cited in this article demonstrates that your assumptions from two years ago about why clients are coming to your facility or choosing to work with a health coach or exercise professional may no longer be valid. That said, it doesn’t take a global stressor like COVID-19 to shift a client’s motivations, and it certainly doesn’t take two years to experience a shift in priorities. Anything from an unexpected diagnosis to a job change can cause a spike in stress levels, so it’s essential that you check in regularly with your clients to reevaluate their motivators, goals and values and then collaborate to modify your approach accordingly.



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