Jennifer Turpin Stanfield by Jennifer Turpin Stanfield

Self-efficacy, which is the belief that one is capable of achieving a specific goal, is one of the biggest predictors of exercise adherence. It’s rooted in Albert Bandura’s Social Cognitive Theory, which asserts that self-efficacy is a product of our thought patterns, past personal accomplishments, vicarious experiences and verbal social persuasion. Here are three things you can do to help new clients build self-efficacy for exercise. 

1. Help new clients develop positive thoughts and emotions related to exercise.

If we want our clients to have positive thoughts and feelings about exercise, they must first have positive exercise experiences. When designing exercise programs for new clients, focus on exercise activities that they enjoy. If your client enjoys music and dancing, suggest dance lessons or dance-based fitness classes to help meet physical activity guidelines. You might help a client who loves nature explore local parks and walking trails. It’s easy to develop an exercise program that is physically challenging—it just takes a little more planning and getting to know your client to help them build an exercise routine that they will actually look forward to. 

2. Use past successes and mastery experiences to build confidence for exercise. 

Talk to your clients about a time in their lives when they were able to stick to an exercise program. Help them make a list of the things that allowed them to be successful last time. Were they part of a workout group? Did they keep an exercise journal? Find out. Then, help them implement strategies that have proven to be effective in the past. If clients are unable to identify a successful past exercise experience, have them tell you a story about a time they were able to build self-efficacy for another behavior, skill or task. It’s important to realize that self-efficacy is situation-specific. Having high self-efficacy for playing a musical instrument, for example, will not necessarily translate into high self-efficacy for exercise. However, if you are able to help a client identify a useful personal skill, such as time management, that has helped her to succeed at another task, you can begin to show her how to use these skills and other personal characteristics to build confidence and self-efficacy for exercise. 

Likewise, mastery is a key element in developing self-efficacy for any behavior. While considering past personal accomplishments, it’s also important to create opportunities for new mastery experiences. Goal setting, teaching a client how to use a specific piece of exercise equipment or showing a client how to track workouts on an exercise log can all lead to your client developing a sense of mastery for exercise.  Furthermore, mastery and exercise self-efficacy can have a reciprocal relationship. While mastery experiences help to increase general exercise self-efficacy, as self-efficacy increases, clients will be more likely to believe that they are able to master novel exercise-specific tasks, such as learning a new squat variation or how to use a new exercise machine.   

3. Encourage your client to build an exercise network.

As much as we love the one to two hours we get to spend with each of our clients every week, the reality is that they are spending the majority of their time with others. If you are the only person from which your client is receiving encouragement for exercise, it may not be enough. 

  • Talk to your clients about other people in their lives who have demonstrated success in sticking to an exercise program.  These vicarious experiences can lead to a client believe: “If she can do it, so can I!” 
  • Encourage your clients to join an exercise group or even an online community where they can receive encouragement and swap exercise ideas and experiences. These verbal interactions known as social persuasion can help to increase exercise self-efficacy. 
  • A workout buddy can provide on-going social support for exercise. Workout buddies can hold each other accountable for sticking to a regular exercise schedule and can be instrumental in helping clients develop strong barrier self-efficacy, which is the ability to overcome potential barriers to exercise (e.g., competing priorities, feeling tired, undesirable weather conditions). 

Implement these strategies and your clients will be well on their way to developing self-efficacy for exercise and building a solid foundation for achieving exercise adherence. 

Looking to expand your knowledge of behavior change and develop physical activity and nutrition coaching skills to empower people to long-term, healthy change? Learn more about ACE’s Health Coach Certification.