As a health and exercise professional, you help your clients meet their health and wellness goals by empowering them to make meaningful lifestyle changes. These might include exercising more regularly or incorporating more whole foods into their diets. Other habits, however, can be more challenging to address, particularly when they are considered “normal” by many people. This article examines three common habits that can make it challenging for clients to hit their goals: regularly drinking alcohol, overeating on weekends and not getting enough high-quality sleep. Read on to learn the potential consequences of these habits, as well as how you can educate and support clients who want to improve their overall well-being and quality of life.  

Regular Alcohol Consumption

Drinking alcohol is portrayed as a normal, expected part of adult life. Between college partying, after-dinner drinks, mommy wine culture, corporate happy hours, beer at sporting events and even how alcohol is represented in in the media, including social media, a daily drink or two seems like a casual, harmless habit. Unfortunately, research data from the World Health Organization indicates that binge drinking (see sidebar) is on the rise, and excessive alcohol consumption and alcohol use disorders are among the leading preventable causes of premature morbidity and mortality.

Binge Drinking Defined

Binge drinking is typically defined as the consumption of a large amount of alcohol within a short period of time, resulting in a rapid and significant increase in blood alcohol concentration. The specific criteria for what constitutes binge drinking can vary slightly depending on the organization or country setting the guidelines, but a common definition in the United States is:

  • For men: Consuming five or more alcoholic drinks in a two-hour period
  • For women: Consuming four or more alcoholic drinks in a two-hour period

It's important to note that these are general guidelines, and individual tolerance to alcohol can vary. Binge drinking can lead to various short- and long-term health risks and is associated with a higher likelihood of accidents, injuries, alcohol poisoning and other negative consequences.

Individuals must, of course, drink responsibly and be aware of their own alcohol tolerance and the guidelines provided by health authorities. If a client reveals that they are struggling with alcohol-related issues, urge them to seek help and support from healthcare professionals or organizations specializing in addiction and substance abuse.

Unfortunately, drinking alcohol, even at what is considered “moderate levels,” increases the risk of many diseases. According to the 2020–2025 Dietary Guidelines for Americans, “Emerging evidence suggests that even drinking within the recommended limits may increase the overall risk of death from various causes, such as from several types of cancer and some forms of cardiovascular disease.

Given the amount of conversation surrounding “toxins” in the health and fitness media, it may be surprising to note that alcohol is a known toxin. The National Institutes of Health considers alcoholic beverages a known carcinogen to humans. Of course, the dose makes the poison, so how much is too much? 

In the U.S., moderate alcohol consumption is defined as no more than two drinks per day for men, and no more than one drink per day for women. A drink is considered 12 ounces of regular beer, 5 ounces of wine or 1.5 ounces of hard alcohol.

Here are a few of the ways alcohol is known to impact the body:

  • Heart: Research has revealed an association between heavy alcohol intake and binge alcohol drinking with higher ectopic fat, which increases the risk for atherosclerosis. Ectopic fat is defined as stored triglycerides in tissues other than adipose tissue (e.g., organs, skeletal muscle) that can interfere with cellular functions and lead to insulin resistance. Alcohol intake is also related to stroke, high blood pressure and arrythmia. 
  • Liver: Alcohol increases likelihood for fatty liver disease, stenosis of the liver, as well as cirrhosis of the liver 
  • Pancreas: Heavy alcohol use can cause pancreatitis, which is inflammation of the pancreas. It is characterized by a fever and severe stomach pain. 
  • Cancer: The National Toxicology Program of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services lists consumption of alcoholic beverages as a known human carcinogen. The report indicates that the more a person drinks, the higher their risk of developing cancer over time. The report indicates a clear relationship between alcohol use and head and neck cancers, esophogeal cancer, liver cancer, breast cancer and colorectal cancer.
  • Psychosocial: It is not uncommon for many people to reach for a drink to deal with stress, but research suggests that stress and anxiety levels may actually worsen once the effects of alcohol wear off. Drinking alcohol is also related to poor sleep, poor food choices and dehydration, all of which can make a person feel unwell physically.

Applied Coaching: How to Discuss Alcohol Intake With a Client

While it is outside your scope of practice as a health and exercise professional to diagnose alcohol use disorder, if a client expresses concern about alcohol use, you are in the perfect position to assist the client with behavior-change support. For example, clients may be open to discussing the pros and cons of their behavior and you can use motivational interviewing (MI) to empower clients to see the discrepancy between their goals and alcohol use. This may lead to collaborating with clients on strategies for change and referring to an appropriate health professional with the client’s permission.

Here are some additional approaches that may be effective:

  • Gather data. Remind clients to include beverages, specifically alcoholic beverages in their food logs and ask how often clients drink alcohol when completing intake questionnaires. 
  • Educate without preaching or lecturing. Inform clients about the caloric impact of alcohol, its effects on sleep and, of course, the negative impact on health that alcohol can have over time, but come back to their desired health and fitness goals, including how they want to feel. 
  • Ask questions and listen. Use motivational interviewing to discuss how clients feel when drinking, why they choose specific drinks and specific rituals related to drinking alcohol. 
  • Recommend alternatives. Urge clients to create new rituals that serve to improve overall health and reduce stress. This might include choosing alternative beverages like sparkling water with a squeeze of lime or warm tea in the evening, or taking 10 minutes to stretch or meditate instead of sitting down with a glass of wine. These new habits can also serve to reduce stress and improve sleep quality, as well.  

Weekend Overeating

Research suggests that some people may overeat or consume more calories on weekends compared to weekdays, a phenomenon sometimes referred to as “weekend overeating” or the “weekend effect.” Several studies have explored this trend and provided insights into the potential reasons behind it.

Factors contributing to weekend overeating include:

  • Social and Recreational Activities: Weekends often involve social gatherings, parties and recreational activities that may include high-calorie foods and drinks.
  • Relaxation: People may view weekends as a time to relax and indulge, which can lead to less mindful eating and increased consumption of comfort foods.
  • Altered Routine: Changes in routine, such as not adhering to regular meal schedules, can contribute to overeating.
  • Stress Relief: Some individuals may use food as a form of stress relief or emotional comfort during the weekend.
  • Sleep Patterns: Irregular sleep patterns or sleep deprivation on weekends may disrupt hunger and satiety signals, leading to overeating.

While weekend overeating can be a concern for some individuals, it's essential to recognize that not everyone follows this pattern. People's eating behaviors can vary widely based on individual preferences, lifestyle and cultural factors.

For those who do overeat on the weekends, taking a free-for-all approach during this time frame can make it challenging to achieve their health and fitness goals. Overeating overrides hunger and fullness cues and disrupts the hormones leptin and ghrelin that cause feelings of hunger and fullness. Overeating can be triggered by stress or other emotions, time of day (often in the evening), feeling tired, eating highly processed foods, which are not filling, or eating in certain social situations. 

It can be terribly frustrating for clients when they feel their nutrition is on point during the weekdays, but they are still gaining weight or not losing fat due to weekend eating or drinking. Of course, it is possible to still enjoy the weekends even while pursuing health and wellness goals, but planning ahead is key. 

Applied Coaching: Handling Weekend Plans and Still Making Progress 

  • Use objective tools such as food journals or photos of food to get a clearer picture of what clients are eating on the weekend. Using a food journal on one weekend day and two weekdays is a time-efficient way to get a better idea of a client’s overall nutrition habits. 
  • Ask clients about their favorite restaurants or take-out and delivery options and look at the menus together and make a plan for what to order. In some cases, this may be a more nutrient-dense meal such as a high-protein option with a vegetable; other times, it may be figuring out how to include their favorite meal into the weekly plan. 
  • Discuss options for getting more movement on the weekend. While a client may not be interested in going to the gym outside the work week, they may be open to a family bike ride, a hike, an outdoor walk, or simply tracking their steps to ensure they keep moving on the weekend. 
  • If clients are stress eating or overeating, teach mindful eating strategies like using the hunger scale, slowing down while eating, portioning food vs. eating from the bag or container, or making a conscious effort to eat slower without screens or distractions. 
  • If clients are using food as a reward, discuss other positive (non-food) experiences clients can use to reward themselves while keeping their long-term goals in mind. This could include, for example, visiting a place they’ve been wanting to go, buying tickets to a sporting event, taking time for a treatment like a massage or pedicure, going on a family outing, seeing a movie, planning a celebratory event with friends or family, or buying themself flowers. 
  • Again, use MI to ask clients where they can improve, and invite them to set a short-term goal to experiment with making changes to their weekend habits.

Sleep Deprivation

Discussing sleep with clients can often feel like beating a dead horse and may be met with understandable responses about work schedules, kids waking at night, deadlines, travel, etc., that feel outside of their control. Sleep deprivation is especially common in shift workers or people working night or early morning hours, new parents waking in the night to care for an infant or toddler, frequent traveling across time zones (jet lag), or those who have sleep disorders. 

Most adults need seven to eight hours of sleep, but many people willingly sacrifice sleep when trying to get more accomplished. Unfortunately, this habit comes at a great expense, as experiencing inadequate or interrupted sleep on a regular basis can cause many issues related to emotional, mental and physical well-being, including:

  • Inability to concentrate
  • Decreased ability to fight off illness or infection
  • Impaired memory
  • Reduced physical strength
  • Increased risk for depression and mental illness
  • Severe mood swings

Lack of sleep also makes it hard to recover from workouts and can interfere with social functioning as well as emotional regulation. It can also lead to serious health problems including increased risk of hypertension, diabetes, obesity, depression, heart attack and stroke.

The circadian rhythm (or 24-hour body clock) supports the sleep-wake cycle and is controlled by the brain in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which is in a part of the brain called the hypothalamus and receives direct input from the eyes; it also controls the production of melatonin, which is a hormone that makes a person feel tired.

“Sleep is the unsung hero of fitness,” says Gary Lougher, founder of 2nd Ascent Coaching and a Precision Nutrition Sleep, Stress Management and Recovery certified coach. “We often focus on nutrition and exercise, and we frequently overlook the vital role that quality sleep plays in achieving overall fitness goals.” And, of course, high-quality sleep is essential to recovering between workouts.

Applied Coaching: Supporting Sleep Practices 

  • Regulating the circadian rhythm can support better quality sleep. Your clients can do this by getting sunlight in the early morning (with a walk or by simply opening the blinds and letting daylight in) and limiting screen time and bright lights before bed. “The first thing I suggest to all of my clients is a simple 10-minute fresh air plus sunlight plus easy movement break, just once a day,” explains Chris Belanger, who is also certified as a Sleep, Stress Management and Recovery coach. “It sounds too simple, but that short break helps reset our natural body rhythms and helps kick off stress-reduction processes in our body.” 
  • Urge clients to be mindful of their sleep environment and try to have a cool, dark, comfortable place to sleep, which can make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep.
  • Daily exercise can support sleep, but this can be a challenge for many people. Even small doses of activity can help lower stress levels and improve sleep quality. For some people, it may be necessary to avoid workouts within a few hours of bedtime, as exercise late in the day can make it more challenging to fall asleep.
  • While some people use alcohol to help them fall asleep, this approach ultimately backfires, as it actually disrupts sleep as the effects wear off. Urge clients to avoid both alcohol and caffeinated beverages late in the day. 
  • Support clients in creating a short, calming evening routine, which may include two to three activities such as a bath or shower, reading or journaling, stretching, listening to white noise or relaxing music, drinking tea or simply taking a few deep breaths. 
  • Use MI to identify a client’s goals, barriers, current sleep practices and where they may have room for improvement. If the client wants to improve their sleep, encourage them to come up with ideas before making suggestions yourself. 

Final Thoughts

As always, clients know their life best. Sleep habits, alcohol consumption and weekend nutrition habits can be emotionally charged issues for many people, and they may not always feel as though they have the control needed to make a change. Always ask permission before offering suggestions, as this helps to create an open and respectful dialogue. Beginning with changes with which clients feel most comfortable and confident will yield better results than forcing something they don’t feel ready to change.