Karen Nathan by Karen Nathan

As a health and exercise professional, you may already be comfortable with the notion that relapse is common. Perhaps you have regularly witnessed your clients stray from their stated wellness goals. In my everyday work, I see clients waver in their commitment to lifestyle changes, especially in the realms of weight loss, smoking cessation and chronic disease management. Over the years, I have come to appreciate that occasional lapses in health-related behavior change are common and even to be expected. No one is perfect, after all.

To help my clients succeed in the long term, I normalize their slip-ups and even prepare them for more mistakes in the future. Then, I help them renew their commitment and make a viable plan for getting right back on track. Consider these practical strategies to better support your clients:


  • Differentiate between a small lapse and a full relapse. People occasionally lapse or briefly revert back to former habits, perhaps not exercising for a week or overeating at a dinner party. Remind your clients that these short and occasional missteps need not reverse their hard-earned progress. Reassure them that they can take control of the situation by getting back to a healthy routine right away. The risk to their progress becomes real, however, if these small-scale slip-ups continue unabated and unaddressed. At that point, your client could be experiencing relapse, or a full return to old and unhelpful habits.
  • Talk back to the negative thoughts. People are understandably disappointed when their mistakes lead to the unwanted return of old habits. Some are tempted to be overly critical of themselves or believe their lapse is evidence that they’re incapable of making lifestyle modifications. They may make comments such as, “I’m not good at this, so I might as well stop trying.” Show your clients how to tamp down negative thoughts and all-or-nothing thinking patterns. You can increase your effectiveness by teaching your clients to talk back to their sabotaging beliefs. Help them develop better responses such as, “Fitness is a skill and I will get better at it with more practice.”
  • Get curious and learn from mistakes. Once your clients let go of their harsh self-criticism, they are more likely to get curious about what led them to their most recent slip-ups. Your role is to help them reframe the experience as a learning opportunity. Through your capable guidance, clients can uncover the triggers that led to the lapse. By asking powerful questions, a pattern of behavior might emerge. How often does this situation arise? What role did social pressure play in your choices? What time management techniques might be useful here?
  • Recognize and plan for high-risk situations. Once your client recognizes the circumstances or variables that trigger unhelpful behaviors, it’s time to create a recovery plan. People feel empowered when they have a specific and reasonable plan in place. Remember, the comeback can be as unique as the person devising it. You’re on the right track if your client knows what to do differently the next time a known trigger arises. As a nonjudgmental and supportive professional, you are highly skilled at guiding people as they plan, prioritize and problem solve their way to a healthier lifestyle.

These relapse-prevention strategies can be a boon to both you and the people you coach. Your clients will benefit by developing useful skills when it comes to sustainable lifestyle change or any other important goal they set for themselves. And by anticipating your clients' needs and skillfully guiding them when they need you most, you’ll find that clients and other referral sources will value your work and send their friends and family to work with you.