Michael Mantell by Michael Mantell

More important than exercise science to a certified fitness trainer and more important than nutritional science to a certified health coach, is the science of behavior change. Radical idea? No, not at all!

Today’s leading-edge thinkers in fitness and health are absolutely clear about the central and primary role that behavior science plays in helping people live healthy, fit, happy lives. In a recent survey by the American Psychological Association entitled Stress in America, respondents were asked about their abilities to make healthy lifestyle changes—the central offering of fitness trainers and health coaches. The number-one reason given for not following through with such changes was lack of willpower. Not giving up hope. Not lack of knowledge. Not lack of availability of coaches and trainers. Rather, they cited lack of willpower. Enter WIT (whatever it takes), grit and self-control.

The groundwork for the study of self-control in modern times dates back to the ‘80s, when Walter Mischel, Ph.D., reported his famous “marshmallow study” (1989, Delay of gratification in children. Science, 244, 933-938). Preschool-aged children were given a plate of treats including marshmallows. The children were told they could have two marshmallows if they could wait for the researcher to return to the room. If they couldn’t wait, all they had to do was ring a bell and the researcher would come back right away and the child who couldn’t wait would be allowed to eat one marshmallow.

Years later, in 2011, B.J. Casey, Mischel and Yuichi Shoda, followed 59 of those children (who were now in their 40s) and found that those who were not able to wait for the researcher to return also performed poorly on self-control tasks as adults (2011, Behavioral and neural correlates of delay of gratification 40 years later. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108, 1498-5003). The value of not reacting emotionally and impulsively, but rather coolly and cognitively, is seen in study after study. As adolescents, the “marshmallow” subjects who withstood the temptation and waited to have two marshmallows scored higher on the SAT and had greater ability to plan, handle stress, respond with reason, and concentrate without becoming distracted. As adults, those who had lower self-control showed brain patterns that were different on functional magnetic resonance imaging from those with higher self-control in the areas of the prefrontal cortex (executive functioning) and the ventral striatum (processes desires and rewards).

Roy Baumeister, Ph.D., and his associates have shown that repeatedly resisting temptations takes its toll and liken willpower to a muscle that becomes  fatigued from overuse (1988, Ego depletion: Is the active self a limited resource? Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 74, 1252-1265). And the work of Angela Duckworth, Ph.D., and Martin Seligman, Ph.D., at the University of Pennsylvania have demonstrated just why “perseverance and passion for long-term goals,” or “grit,” is so valuable, and described how to achieve it (2005, Self-discipline outdoes IQ in predicting academic performance in adolescents. Psychological Science, 16, 939-944).

Duckworth defines grit as the ability to “work strenuously toward challenges, maintaining effort and interest over years despite failure, adversity and plateaus in progress.” She distinguishes self-control as a shorter-term behavior—not eating the marshmallow right in front of you. Grit is about pushing toward goals over a longer period of time. The fitness trainer and health coach is interested in both.

Helping clients develop self-control and grit to achieve and maintain healthy lifestyle habits and long-term change is the core of the work you do as a fitness trainer and health coach. Ask your clients if they’d be interested in taking Duckworth’s 12-question test to see how they measure up on grit.

Here are some key ways to help your clients develop WIT, GRIT and self-control:

WIT. Whatever it Takes is the mantra to teach your clients to say to themselves over and over again. A 2010 study at Stanford University found that mood and belief could buffer the effects of willpower depletion (Job, V., et al. 2010. Ego depletion: Is it all in your head? Implicit theories about willpower affect self-regulation. Psychological Science, 21, 1686-1693).

Goals Get You There. Help your clients set SMARTER (enthusiastically set and rewardable) goals. When your clients control one small thing they are unaccustomed to controlling, it actually helps strengthen their “willpower muscle.” Doing these frequent reps, practicing small steps of attaining mini-goals and doing so on deadline increases self-control and willpower. Putting these short-term goals in writing will help.

Relax and Reward. Teach your clients how to attain the physiological relaxation-response and teach stress-prevention techniques to boost willpower reserve. Slowed breathing and muscle-tension release can help your clients have more effective responses to the stress of challenges to their willpower. Knowing that incentives work wonders, trainers and coaches would be wise to discuss what clients find rewarding about achieving a goal and maintaining longer-term health habits.

Implementation Intention. Help your clients improve their self-control and plan ahead for temptations by teaching them a simple “if-then” strategy. Is your client going to a party where lots of alcohol will be served? “IF anyone pushes a drink on me, THEN I’ll thank them and carry a glass of club soda with a few olives in it.” These plans, or implementation intentions, can improve self-control, even among those with reduced willpower by avoiding using decision making rather than simply relying on willpower.

Thinking Truthfully. Help your clients see what Kelly McGonigal in her book, The Willpower Instinct: How Self-Control Works, Why It Matters, and What You Can Do to Get More of It”(2012, Penguin Books, New York) calls the three different aspects of willpower:

-“I won’t” power—the ability to resist temptations
-“I will” power—the ability to do what needs to be done
-“I want” power—the awareness of one’s long-term goals and desires

Meditation can provide the arena in which healthy, accurate thinking can take place. Teach your clients the well-recognized value of taking time to reflect rationally on what’s going right in life. Further, teach your client the value of thinking self-forgiving thoughts, which help prevent the “all-or-nothing,” “success or failure” thinking that leads to relapse. Arming your clients with rational responses to inaccurate thoughts, such as “I can’t stand being hungry” or “I can’t make time to get to the gym,” will boost their self-control.

These are some well-documented steps to creating WIT, GRIT and self-control. Before establishing a nutritional or exercise plan, be sure to bring the best that behavioral science has to offer your clients to ensure healthy lifestyle behavior change.

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