Helping Clients Create Long-Lasting Sustainable Change

Dana Bender
Dana Bender
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There is a reason why personal trainers highlight tips and tricks to help their clients successfully reach their health and fitness goals. This is because the behavior change process can be challenging even amongst the highly motivated clientele.

Behavior change is often a complex journey and requires trainers to take a personalized approach while working with each person. They play an important role in helping their clients set goals, assess their progress along the way, and re-commit over time. Personal trainers and coaches need to understand behavior change concepts and theories to help clients more effectively reach their goals and create sustainable, lasting change.

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How Clients Struggle with Old Habits 

There can be various personal reasons why clients have difficulty cultivating lasting change in their lives. It can be easy to relapse into old habits that do not align with their intentions whether this relates to sedentary behavior, poor eating habits, or not getting enough sleep. Furthermore, there may be relationship and environmental factors that increase the barriers to change.

For example, lack of a strong support system social or environmental factors, or hurdles get in the way of their progress. On an intrapersonal level, ineffective goal-setting techniques can hinder client efforts. Even clients who are highly motivated to change might not be aware of the most effective goal-setting techniques that correlate with higher success.

A common ineffective goal-setting factor is that goal focuses too much on the outcome, not the process, and/ or is too general instead of the recommend SMART goal technique.  

Mindset can also play a factor in clients struggling with old habits. First, clients may not have a growth mindset and get discouraged along the way. Change takes time and it is essential to learn about what is or is not working along the way. If someone does not have a growth mindset, and it is instead fixed, it can be harder to view challenges as learning opportunities.

Due to this, it can be easier to stick with old habits than perform the work that long-lasting behavioral change requires. Mindset can also create a barrier if a client struggles with negative self-talk or experiences low self-efficacy from prior unsuccessful attempts to change their behavior. Self-efficacy is a person’s belief in their ability to successfully change their behavior.

According to Self-Efficacy Theory, people will often do what they believe they can do and won’t try what they believe they are not capable of achieving. In other words, clients can “get in their way” which derails their efforts. Regardless of the specific barrier, personal trainers and coaches can intervene and make a positive difference in client outcomes. One way to do this is by incorporating behavior change concepts while working with clientele.

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Introducing Behavior Change to Clients

The first step in introducing behavior change to clients is to start small. Ask discovery-oriented open-ended questions to gather more insight into what is motivating the client. In other words, what do they specifically hope to obtain by participating in personal training? If clients give a general response like “I want to become healthier” or respond with an outcome goal like “I want to lose weight”, it is important to ask additional questions that help the client narrow down their focus to specific action(s).

For example, “what is the one habit or action they can take this week or now that will move them forward?” The goal here is to help the client identify the specific behavior(s) they will start doing, or do more frequently, to reach their goals. This specific action might be walking three times a week, weight-training two times a week, or engaging in mobility exercises daily to reduce low back pain. As a trainer, we want to help our clients personalize these specific actions before training them.

Once you identify the specifics of their goal, help your clients set a SMART (specific, measurable, attainable, realistic, and time-specific) goal with your client. Remember to set this goal collaboratively with your client so that they feel part of the process. This will increase the amount of buy-in to the plan and help with accountability. As you work to set these SMART goals, consider the baseline of their current habit, and help your clients set an attainable and realistic step forward. Tailor the recommendation to the person and meet them where they are at. 

Before working with a client, it is important to help your clients understand the barriers that might get in the way. Create a plan of how they plan to acknowledge and troubleshoot these barriers. Furthermore, remind your clients that relapse is part of the behavior change process. Help them understand that relapse is a learning tool and when they occur, they can use what they learned to better improve their change plan.

For instance, perhaps an environmental factor or cue needs to be modified to support their newly adopted behavior, or perhaps they need more helping relationships to support their efforts. 

How to Implement Behavior Change Techniques in Training

In addition to incorporating behavior change concepts before working with a client, it is important to implement them during the training timeframe as well. There are various behavior change theories out there, but one theory that is important to know and utilize is the Transtheoretical model (TTM) developed by James Prochaska.

This model views behavior changes in dynamic cyclical stages (pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance). They are not linear like a staircase, and clients can move dynamically from stage to stage at any time. Understanding the TTM can help trainers understand their client's readiness for change and what stage of change they are in.

If you are not sure how to tell what stage they are in, listen to how they talk about their goal, also known as change talk, and prior behavior change attempts. Listed below are the stages of change and some examples of each:

Pre-contemplation – In this stage, clients are happy with the status quo. They are often unaware of problem behavior and have no desire to change. Individuals in the pre-contemplation stage of change are likely not signing up for personal training sessions.

Contemplation – Clients are considering changing their behavior and evaluating the pros and cons of making the change or staying the same. In this stage, the client needs to understand the benefits of changing their behavior. This is a great time for trainers and coaches to share information that will increase awareness about the problem behavior and the benefits associated with the change. This can help clients consider which path forward makes the most sense for them. This might be when they consider whether they want to sign up for personal training.

Preparation – Here, clients have decided that they want to make a change and are making a plan to change in the next thirty days. This could mean that they already purchased a personal training package, or it means they plan to within the month. Preparation is an important stage that sets clients up for a successful action stage. This stage is a time for trainers to build rapport with their clients, help to set SMART goals and develop a personalized program.

Action – In this stage, clients are actively working to complete aspects of their plan and visibly working to change their behavior. The support of helping relationships like a personal trainer and other social support is essential here. In addition to providing support and accountability, it is important to help clients identify appropriate rewards, replace unhealthy behaviors with healthier ones, and reduce temptation in their environment through stimulus control.

Maintenance – In this stage, clients are working to maintain their efforts achieved in the action stage of change. Often this stage can be viewed as the completion of the behavior change but that is not the case. Maintenance is an active and important stage where clients sustain the momentum they have built so far and continue to stay motivated with their goals.

This stage of change is commonly when relapse can occur since it is hard work to stay consistent. As a trainer, it is important to help clients stay focused and committed to their goals. Consider what changes may be necessary to keep the training experience fresh and exciting. Perhaps it may also be time to set a new SMART goal if their goal has shifted and evolved. 

As these examples demonstrate, once you know where a client falls in the stages of change, consider what tools, also known as processes of change, are most appropriate for them to implement. According to the TTM theory, processes of change are essentially tools that help clients transition between the stages, and they need to be used at the correct stage of change.

For example, helping relationships is an example of a process of change according to this theory. As mentioned above, trainers need to be this support person during the preparation, action, and maintenance stages most frequently. There are various ways to do this. Check in on what your client thinks about their current goal progress. Do they think any changes are needed? Do they need any additional support? Why or why not?

Remember, change is not linear, and just because a client is in preparation or the action stage of change, does not mean they will stay there during the entire training package. They might have transitioned back to contemplation which means they need a different tool to help them move forward. The benefit of this approach is that the relationship between the trainer and client can help build accountability for the behavioral change. 

Another key health behavior concept that fitness professionals can benefit from understanding while working with clients is self-efficacy. A client who has high self-efficacy is often going to have increased motivation and internal dialogue that helps support the behavior change process.

Clients who have low self-efficacy often have an internal dialogue that can create a barrier in the process. Understanding where your client’s self-efficacy is while you are training them will be an important piece in asking the right questions and providing the support they need. 

How Behavior Change Can Boost Athletic Performance

Through the techniques outlined above, there is a higher likelihood of behavior change. When clients effectively reach their goals, this increases their self-efficacy, and resultantly their motivation to work towards their next goal. Over time this process of setting and reaching SMART goals can help a client who lives a more sedentary lifestyle transition to someone who exercises regularly and sets performance metric targets.

Another way to look at this is that behavior change can boost athletic performance because success breeds success. It also impacts their mindset for the positive. When a client believes they can accomplish what they set out to accomplish, this mindset fuels and pushes their performance outside their comfort zone. Clients might even start to incorporate guided imagery and cognitive reframing techniques to empower themselves further.

Regardless of where clients may fall on the spectrum of performance goals, sustainable change over time can impact a client’s mindset on what they can accomplish. This is essentially why sports psychologists and coaches can play a critical role in helping athletes successfully reach their athletic targets. 

Overall, the role of a personal trainer and coach has a profound impact on helping clients’ behavior change journey and can increase their likelihood of effective outcomes.

The Author

Dana Bender

Dana Bender

Dana Bender, MS, NBC-HWC, ACSM, E-RYT. Dana works as a Wellness Strategy Manager with Vitality and has 15+ years experience in onsite fitness and wellness management. Dana is also a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach, an Adjunct Professor with Rowan University, an E-RYT 200 hour Registered Yoga Teacher, AFAA Group Exercise Instructor, ACSM Exercise Physiologist, and ACE Personal Trainer. Learn more about Dana at www.danabenderwellness.com.


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