Jonathan Ross by Jonathan Ross

It can be a challenge to break through motivational barriers in clients who need our help the most—those struggling with obesity and its health consequences—but it is imperative that we do so.

The harsh truth: Fitness alone rarely motivates people. Read on to learn why.

What Really Drives You?

(Hint: It’s Probably Not Fitness)

Most people don’t love fitness for the sake of fitness. Fitness gives us the opportunity to physically explore and do things we love. It enhances our enjoyment of life and the things that truly matter to us. In other words, fitness is a means to the end. Too often we focus on the means, when most people focus on the end. Most people don’t go to college because they love studying, but because see college as a gateway to a career or doing something meaningful. Yet with fitness, we often present it as if studying is the point of college. Fitness is the process.

What do you and your clients really care about? The answers to this question can illuminate the keys to motivation. For example, in the context of fitness, I love to be able to do something of a physical and to lose myself in the activity without a care or worry about my body. For me, workouts that make this possible are what drive me. It’s not the workout itself. I want to get up and go play volleyball or tennis whenever I can, hop on a stand-up paddle board and get on the water, go hiking and see some awesome scenery, ride roller coasters at amusement parks, etc. A workout plan that prepares me to participate well in highly variable activities such as these is what really motivates me to exercise.

Now, think of how we present fitness to someone struggling with obesity. It’s usually all about the process of the workouts. Or, if we focus on the outcome, it’s a misdirected focus on abstract goals such as “have more energy,” or “lose X number of pounds,” etc. We don’t usually elicit a discussion of the deeper drivers and motivators—what living in a fitter, leaner, lighter body will allow a person to do. We need to help clients identify their emotionally relevant goals.

For example, I once worked with a client who was more than 350 pounds, but wanted to lose weight. He had a few physical challenges from previous injuries and car accidents, and was fairly motivated, but had a difficult set of circumstances to deal with professionally and a lot going on personally (albeit mostly good) that was taking up a lot of energy and time. It was only through my digging deeper and investigating what really mattered that I discovered that this client really loved riding roller coasters with his son. In the previous summer, he was denied entry on a ride while at an amusement park with his son, and I could see the shift in his emotional state when he revealed this to me. This was very significant moment: It was clear that the loss of a cherished shared activity with his son and the future ability to do this successfully was his real source of motivation. (And, I’m guessing it was also the crushing embarrassment of having that happen at a park surrounded by many people and having to manage his son’s disappointment and lack of full understanding of why they were denied the ride. Experiences such as these can provide a powerful emotional memory of the result of poor health choices and a big dose of motivation to consistently be better.

Whatever any of us really love about life, it gets better when we do it in a fit, capable body. Help your clients find their “why” and connect it with fitness to provide a formula for a near endless supply of motivation.

All or Nothing – Only in Fitness

It is fascinating how the expectation of doing everything right and perfect is applied almost exclusively to fitness. Imagine, for example, if someone got stuck in traffic and then couldn’t find parking, and as a result showed up an hour late for work. Would he just pack it in and go home for the day? Or how about if someone missed an episode of her favorite TV show—would she stop watching the series? Crazy talk. But this is exactly what happens with fitness. It’s all-or-nothing all the time. Here’s an example and how to turn it around.

A client shared with me that she’d gone away for the weekend and was “very bad,” and “ate a lot of bad food and drank more than she should have.” She normally follows a solid nutrition plan. She was feeling unmotivated and down on herself as a result and struggling to resume healthy habits and working out. I calmly asked her how she felt. She reported feeling terrible—sluggish, bloated and lethargic. I enthusiastically replied, “This is great news. What have we learned?” She shot me a curious look, so I continued. “We learned that your body responds powerfully to choices that have significant health effects. This can also apply to making positive choices.” A look came across her face as if I’d pulled back the curtain to reveal something she never knew existed. It was simply taking a different view of what positives can be learned from unwise choices. Realizing that her body would likely respond as quickly to a few days of wise choices as they had to a few days of unwise ones removed the dread and heavy feeling she had about recent past choices and got her excited about making positive ones right now, today.

Everyone is Great at Something

It is interesting to meet people who are competent and capable with a certain hobby, in managing multidirectional family responsibilities, or who are highly successful professionally in respected fields, yet, when the topic turns to fitness, they are riddled with anxiety and fear like a scared child.

It is amazing what happens when you ask people to tell you what they are great at doing. As you listen to the picture they paint, you can see their eyes come alive and hear the energetic tone in their voice. When I ask this question of a client, I immediately identify the personal characteristics that it takes to be great at what he or she just described, and then I immediately follow this up by explaining how those are the same characteristics it takes to be great at and successful with fitness. I get to see a mind blown every time. I love these moments—when you see people suddenly realize, after years of fear with fitness, that they have always had inside what it takes to be successful with fitness. Inevitably, their mindset changes almost immediately.

Perception is reality and a shift in perception sets the stage for a different reality and provides a hope and confidence that has proven elusive.

Can’t We Just Work Out?

As health and fitness professionals, we have a duty and responsibility to inspire life-changing changes in every life we encounter. Sometimes we feel pressured to just provide a tough workout experience to justify the expense of training. In my twenties, I watched my father give up and drift away into obesity and eventual death at age 56, weighing 424 pounds. Decades of poor choices every day led to a dead end. A single workout does nothing, but a single conversation can change everything that follows that moment. People need you. They need you to lead but not by directing and telling them what to do, but by bringing out their hidden strengths, showing them why they care enough to stick it out with fitness, and revealing the all-you-can eat motivation buffet that exists inside of them and how to access it whenever they need it.