We are all a product of our habits.

So, as a health and exercise professional, how can you help your clients harness the power of their habits and turn them into rituals that drive meaningful and lasting behavior change? The answer may lie in expanding a client’s recognition and understanding of their current habits and then layering them with meaning by considering the client’s personal values and incorporating social support.

When does a habit or routine become a ritual? The word ritual means different things to different people, from religious (e.g., sacred rituals) to the more mundane (e.g., morning rituals and beauty rituals). For the purposes of this article, a ritual is defined as a habit that is connected to one’s values and personal relationships, with a goal of fostering commitment, accountability and community.

Therefore, the power of a ritual is derived from its meaning to the individual. And that meaning can stem from personal values, such as wanting to eat a plant-based diet that aligns with their beliefs about the ethical treatment of animals; from a sense of community, such as wanting to form a morning walking group with friends and family members in an attempt to socialize and improve their collective well-being; or from any other belief or objective that brings meaning to actions.

Recognizing Habits

When I asked Chris Gagliardi, MS, Scientific Education Content Manager at ACE and an ACE Certified Personal Trainer, Health Coach, Group Fitness Instructor and Medical Exercise Specialist, about strategies for helping clients replace unhealthy habits with healthy ones, he suggested that health coaches first take a step back by helping clients recognize the habits that make up their day. After all, you cannot change what you don’t know exists. Most clients are surprised by this exercise, as they uncover previously unrecognized patterns in their behavior.

Gagliardi suggests having clients write down all their habits over the course of a day. Be sure to avoid language like “good” or “bad” when discussing habits. Instead, ask clients to identify which ones are helping them get to where they want to be and which ones take away from that pursuit.

“Your life changes when your habits change,” explains Gagliardi, “so it’s important to have clients ask themselves, ‘What are the habits that make me the person I am?’”

The second part of this exercise involves discussing if there are any habits they’d like to change or would be willing to change. As a health and exercise professional, you must be prepared for clients who recognize unhealthy habits but are still unready to address them. For example, a client may be exercising three days a week and meeting their physical-activity goals, but still be unwilling to discuss quitting smoking or eating fast food for dinner most nights.

The point here is, even if there are things they don’t want to change, this exercise will encourage them to think about their habits in a new way. Clients should evaluate each of the rituals that make up their daily routine to determine whether it is in alignment with how they want to live their life or runs counter to it. Enabling a client to see how their unhealthy rituals undermine their pursuit of their goals can be the first step toward replacing them with healthier behaviors.

Kelsey Graham, MEd, CHES, assistant professor in the exercise science department at San Diego Mesa College and director of their Personal Training Certificate Program, suggests framing this discussion as an exploration of their habits, free of judgment. Ask clients which habits stand out to them in terms of getting in the way of their goals, as opposed to pointing out what you see in their list, and then collaborate on developing strategies for those behaviors they’d like to shift.

Considering Personal Values

“Any time a person is trying to form a new habit, the habit has to have meaning,” says Linda Fogg-Phillips, MS, director of Tiny Habits Academy. For example, if a client says they want to “get healthier,” discuss the purpose behind that goal. Why do they want to get healthier? What is the underlying value? This type of conversation may help surface the true reasons, which might include things like stress reduction, pain relief or the ability to spend more active time with their children or grandchildren. From there, you can use that reason—often referred to in behavior-change circles as the client’s “why”—to focus their efforts whenever their commitment starts to wane.

Imagine, for example, a client who has a goal of losing weight to play soccer with their grandkids with less fatigue and pain afterward. Meanwhile, they have a habit of sitting at their desk and eating fast food during their lunch break, which clearly runs counter to their objective. It may be easy for this client to continue with this counterproductive habit if their vague goal of “losing weight” is not important or specific enough to encourage them to replace it, perhaps with a new ritual of joining coworkers for a 30-minute walk. Linking that desired behavior to their underlying value of spending more quality time with their grandkids may be the key to empowering the client to shift their habit to a ritual that is more supportive of their health-related goals.

As Gagliardi explains, it’s much easier to quit a positive behavior if you’ve lost sight of your goals. “On the other hand, if a habit or ritual is connected to your values,” he says, “you are much more likely to find a way to be active, eat healthier or do whatever it is that keeps you on track.”

Connecting With Others to Build a Sense of Shared Purpose

Social support is a vital component of any behavior-change effort. Encourage clients to take social support a step further by building a community of people—friends, family members, neighbors or coworkers—who want to develop a shared ritual and can encourage one another to achieve success. Developing this camaraderie among a circle of workout partners, for example, often requires that the client be candid and vulnerable in sharing their values with those they love.

“When clients can share the ‘why’ behind their behavior,” says Graham­­, “It can be helpful in terms of getting family and friends on board.” As she explains, helping the people in your life realize how important a behavior change is to you and how it aligns with your personal values and long-term goals can trigger enlightening and powerful conversations that can help them understand the value of the change you’re making.

“There can be a feeling of selfishness around self-care,” says Graham, so reframing these conversations around the deeper meaning and how it relates to your ability to interact with those around you can be a strategy that helps people stick with their behavior-change goals.

Stated simply, if a habit supports a client’s values and involves their loved ones, it becomes much easier to stick with over the long haul. In fact, Fogg-Phillips says that “one of the underlying reasons for starting a physical-activity routine is sometimes a desire for social connection.”

Fogg-Phillips also offers an important note regarding accountability, which is often cited as an essential element of social support. “Accountability is very helpful and productive when it makes you feel good,” she says. “When it makes you feel badly, like you’re not measuring up, or brings up any other negative feeling, accountability can actually be harmful. Accountability should be built around helping everyone feel successful.”

Changing Unhealthy Habits to Healthy Ones

So, how does a client actually go about modifying their habits and rituals to better align with their purpose?

There are certain things that catalyze change, including big-picture disruptions to a client’s routine. The COVID-19 pandemic is the ultimate example, as it forced just about everyone to change their lifestyles in one way or another, but other examples include changes in job status, family situations or even the changing of the seasons. Such events, says Gagliardi, can cause people to think about why certain rituals are important to them.

Consider a client who has a group of friends who meet at a bar each week to watch Monday Night Football, eat pizza and wings, and drink beer. When that routine first got disrupted during the pandemic, the client might have taken the time to consider why that event was so important to them. In all likelihood, it’s the socializing, not the food, that they missed most. So, the next step is to determine if there is an opportunity to rethink that ritual in light of their values and behavior-change goals.

This can be challenging, particularly at first, explains Graham, who describes this as “short-term pain for long-term gain.” Giving up foods or behaviors that are enjoyable to achieve long-term outcomes can be difficult, which is why connecting them to one’s values and purpose is essential—and why success is so gratifying.

Another potential catalyst for change involves a modification in a client’s environment, or the context in which they are making decisions and establishing new rituals. There is a concept called choice architecture, which involves modifying the environment to take the decision out of decision making. For example, consider a client who is having a hard time breaking the habit of smoking a couple of cigarettes on their drive home from work. A solution might involve simply removing the cigarettes from the car, thereby eliminating the ability to make that choice in that moment.

Other examples of choice architecture might involve keeping washed fruits and vegetables at the front of the refrigerator and moving less-healthy options to the back or driving a new route home from work each day that passes by the client’s health club. It’s amazing how quickly habits and rituals can change when it becomes just a little bit inconvenient to do something. Of course, this cuts both ways, as it’s just as easy to modify habits in the wrong direction by making unhealthy choices easier to make, so teach clients to use this strategy to their advantage.

Graham offers one more valuable insight regarding modifying habits. Health coaches, she explains, must never lose sight of the fact that the client’s current habit, no matter how unhealthy or counterproductive it may seem, is serving them somehow. For example, if a client is overeating at night as a way to manage the cumulative stress of the workday, simply eliminating that ritual is not enough. As Graham explains, the client still needs to manage the stress that is causing the negative behavior, so it is the health coach’s job to help them brainstorm other solutions. “Work with clients to figure out how a behavior is serving them,” she says, “then have the client ask themself, ‘What else can I do or eat or change to get that same outcome?’”

Finally, it’s important to make sure the client knows that you are not taking any particular behavior off the table. Eating food, for example, is still an option. You don’t want to create an environment where you are declaring things off-limits, as that can actually increase the client’s desire for those options. Instead, encourage your clients to develop emotional coping tools and new habits and rituals that better serve their goals and values.  

In Conclusion

Behavior change is never easy. By helping clients connect their habits and rituals to not only their values and objectives, but also to their community of loved ones, you can empower your clients to making truly meaningful changes in their lives. Behavior change is often framed as a solitary pursuit, but by building connections with the people in their lives who can provide social support, positive accountability and a respect for the shared values that drive their behaviors, clients are better positioned to achieve long-term success.