Tiffani Bachus by Tiffani Bachus

Change isn’t easy. Making lasting changes to behavior is rarely a simple or swift process. How can we help clients develop healthy changes that last?

The truth is, many people can quickly make measurable changes to both diet and fitness, with visible results to weight, body mass and even fitness levels. All too often, though, these quick gains don’t endure.

How often do we hear this story from clients: I followed a plan and it worked, and then I fell right back into my old routine, and all my progress just disappeared! Unfortunately, short-term gains are often lost when the “program” is over and old habits return. These swings in and out of healthy habits, back and forth between being “on track” and “stuck in old ruts” are discouraging and demotivating for clients, and keep them from integrating meaningful, lasting changes to their lives.

As health professionals specializing in fitness and nutrition, handing our clients plans for eating well and exercising doesn’t ensure success over the long-term. We’re the “experts” when it comes to nutrients, calorie consumption and expenditure. But for clients to succeed, they need to become the true experts in their own progress toward the new behaviors that support diet, nutrition and fitness changes. Rather than simply telling clients, here is what you must do, we can more fully serve them when we help them discover the individual insights, motivations and goals that exist within them. How do we achieve this? Listen. Ask questions—especially open-ended ones. Tailor your plans to their very personal goals. Set aside your expert status and create a partnership with your client.

Here are five strategies for working with clients to create lasting behavior changes:

1. Use the Stages of Change model.

This model deploys a gradual progression of small steps toward a larger goal. Rather than setting a single overreaching goal at the outset, this model reframes the entire goal-setting process into a series of small, but important, benchmarks. Over time, these smaller goals deliver clients to their larger goal. Rather than defining goals for clients to adopt, turn the goal-setting process over to clients—with you as a guide and support.

2. Turn goals into SMART goals.

SMART goals are:

  • Specific
  • Measurable
  • Attainable
  • Relevant
  • Time-bound

Every goal that a client sets can, and should, meet these criteria. If a goal doesn’t meet the SMART criteria, work with your client to adjust the goal until it does.

3. Identify ways to stay motivated.

Motivation is never static. It varies and shifts, over a month or a week or even during the course of a single day. Encouraging clients to adopt specific strategies to boost motivation gives them resources they’ll have close at hand to help them stay focused on their SMART goals, even when intrinsic motivation is flagging. It’s a good idea to help clients develop a collection of motivational tactics, including:

  • Making lists of motivating statements.
  • Periodically reviewing—and updating—what their motivations are.
  • Regularly charting their progress in achieving SMART goals.
  • Seeking out social support.

As with goals, motivational strategies must be personal and are most effective when they come from the clients themselves.

4. Encourage accountability.

We all benefit from being accountable for our actions. Accountability is essential to weight loss and weight maintenance. Food journals and dietary tracking, exercise and sleep logs give clients real-time snapshots of their behaviors in action. These records provide an important daily frame of reference for decision-making and allow clients to absorb the impact of the choices they’re making regarding diet and exercise.

5. Acknowledge relapses.

Relapses are common and part of the process of making real, enduring changes. Relapses can be discouraging, but they should not be viewed as signs of failure, but rather as short-term challenges that can be overcome. Helping clients handle relapse often includes:

  • Identifying triggers that lead to relapse.
  • Developing coping strategies to deal with temptation.
  • Planning for how to course-correct when a diet or fitness relapse occurs.

Clients will be more effective in coping with relapses when they’ve had a direct, leading role in creating their relapse-ready game plans. Encourage clients to speak honestly about their fears and possible triggers for relapse, and build from there.

There’s nothing like the satisfaction of making lasting changes to one’s life—or to helping someone else make that change for themselves. Using these strategies can increase the likelihood of long-term success we want all of our clients to achieve.

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