That exercise program you designed for this client? You’re lucky if your client logs a single workout without you. And forget about healthy eating. For this individual, the sky is apparently the limits.
While the above situation might be a little extreme, dealing with clients who regard their sessions with you as little more than a free pass to do whatever they want the rest of the time is no doubt frustrating. Yet before you call it quits with this client, here are some ways you can help set them up for success by instilling in them the tools they need to create new habits.
Understanding the Evolution of Habits
Slip-ups, of course, happen to everybody, even those who are most committed to their health. “Anybody who says otherwise is a liar,” says Rachel Buschert Vaziralli, M.S., owner of Rachel V Fitness and Schwinn Master Trainer in New York City.
Yet people who experience minor slip-ups—for instance, maybe they had to skip a day or two of their regularly scheduled workouts or indulged a little too much at a friend’s party—but then quickly recover are different from people who routinely fall away from the program. So why do some people get it and others don’t? For the answer, you have to understand a little about the motivation system and how habits are built.
First, travel back hundreds of thousands of years ago when humans were first evolving. Back then, if you stumbled upon fat or sugar, you ate it immediately because you wouldn’t know when you were going to see it again. As a result, “the human brain became hardwired over time to do what was most beneficial in the short-term versus the long-term,” says Art Markman, Ph.D., professor of psychology and marketing at the University of Texas in Austin and author of Smart Change (Perigee, 2014). Activity was also an essential part of daily existence.
In today’s world, though, foods loaded with fat and sugar are everywhere, and activity has been factored out of daily routines. Yet humans still have that same brain that wants to do nothing more than what feels good in the short-term—for instance, flopping on the couch after work versus going to the gym, or eating a candy bar instead of a carrot. Even worse? “The motivation system works in such a way that if you give it any chance to weasel out, it will,” Markman says, adding, though, that it’s not just as simple as creating new habits. “While building new habits, people also have to overcome habits they already have in place.”
This may explain why “newbies” are the most likely candidates to experience slip-ups. “They haven’t yet developed good solid habits,” says Todd Durkin, M.A., C.S.C.S., owner of Fitness Quest 10 and Todd Durkin Enterprises in San Diego, Calif., lead training advisor for Under Armour, and author of The IMPACT! Body Plan (Rodale, 2011).
Certain personalities are also more prone to slip-ups, which is why you need to listen for specific cues when doing an initial assessment. For instance, if you’re about to work with a new client who says they frequently start and stop exercise programs or they’ve tried every gym and nutrition program on the market, you know that these people will need more assistance to stay motivated, says Valorie Ness, B.S., C.E.S., C.P.T., CEO of Catalyst Fitness in Atlanta and 2013 PFP Trainer of the Year.
Help clients learn how to get back on track after a slip-up, though, and you’ll excel in this field. “We’re in the behavioral-change business,” Durkin says. “How you get clients to adhere to your program and see results is the root of our business.”
How to Increase Accountability and Motivation in Clients
When trying to change a certain behavior in clients, there’s no cookie-cutter program that works for everybody. Yet there are five main tenets you need to address when dealing with the motivation system, Markman says.
First, clients need to set the right goals. “People usually fail the minute they set their goals,” Markman says. Why? They set either negative goals, such as “I want to eat less,” or outcome goals like “I want to lose 15 pounds.”
Habits, though, are built by doing things instead of not doing things, which negative goals promote. And while outcome goals get you to a certain point, they don’t give you a plan for living past that point. Say, for example, you encounter a client who wants to lose 15 pounds by eating less. That person will probably engage in all sorts of unhealthy behaviors to shed the pounds, but what happens once the weight comes off?
Second, understand that the motivation system has a go system, which drives the brain and engages you to act. It’s actually always looking for a way to create new habits.
Yet there’s also a stop system, which you might know better as willpower. The problem with this system, however, is that it will eventually fail; stress and overexertion often drive the failure. “Your goal is to minimize the times you have to use the stop system,” Markman says.
To do this, create plans so you know what to do when faced with temptations. Say, for example, you’re working with an individual who’s really turned her eating habits around, but has an office party where she’ll be faced with a buffet, one of her past weaknesses. If she goes to that event without a plan to deal with the buffet, she’ll no doubt overeat. However, if she has a plan—like deciding to go through the line last in hopes the offerings have been picked over, using a small plate from the dessert table and sitting away from the buffet without looking at it—resisting temptation will be much easier.
The fourth tenet involves the environment. “Most people don’t consider how much the world around them affects the way they act,” Markman says. The goal? Make the things you want to do easy to do and the things you don’t want to do hard to do.
Take gym memberships, for instance. If a client is having trouble going to the gym because it takes 20 minutes to drive there, do some research to find a fitness facility this client passes every day on his way to work.
Finally, being around like-minded individuals who are doing the habits you want to adopt is critical. Of course, your clients are already engaging with you, but you can offer them additional ways to stay connected with people who share similar goals. For instance, create workout teams within your clients so everybody has a buddy who will hold them accountable. Or if you have clients who are frequently on the road, send them texts, emails and programs as Durkin does. “I’ll even send them a short video message of me talking some smack on my iPhone to light that spark under their backside,” he says.
Putting Plan B Into Action
If, after trying these approaches, you still don’t see success with your clients, ask them to go back to their “why.” Why, for instance, does this client want to slim down to a size six? Answering this might reveal that the real reason lies in having more confidence and feeling better about themselves. “Once they figure out the why, they reveal the emotions behind it, and emotion is the key to creating any kind of success,” says Lori Shemek, Ph.D., C.N.C., health expert in Dallas and author of Fire Up Your Fat Burn (CreateSpace, 2012). She has her clients write down the why and refer to it frequently.
At the same time, Shemek asks clients to do visualization exercises. “When you have a picture of who you want to be and understand why you’re doing this emotionally, it’s almost a guaranteed path to success,” she says. Other tools she uses to get clients back on their path to healthy living include journaling, eliminating negative self-talk and encouraging clients to get involved with social media to increase accountability.
If you’ve tried every strategy you can think of, though, and a client still isn’t willing to change, you might need to consider letting that client go. “If they’re not willing to work for their results, then nothing is ever going to change,” Durkin says.
Of course, this will hopefully be the rare client, as with a little work and the right tools, anybody can adopt new behaviors and change old ones. Who said you can’t teach an old dog new tricks anyway?