Whether a ‘New Year – New Me,’ striving to get the perfect Summer body or the mad rush to get ready for special occasion, we’ve probably all – at some point- reactivated our gym memberships, stocked up on new workout wear and promised ourselves that that ‘this time it will be different.’ Maybe this lasts a week, maybe a whole month or maybe you keep it going for a couple of months and achieve your ‘goal’ just in time. Either way, there is a distinct end point to this journey for most of us and we often find ourselves back to square one – repeatedly.
If this ‘Stop – Start’ scenario sounds familiar – keep reading. If you want to make a lasting change and develop sustainable fitness habits – keep reading. And if you are a practicing or aspiring Personal Trainer, and you want to help your clients make lasting changes to live fitter, healthier and altogether happier lives – keep reading.
Let’s first establish, that you are not a failure and you certainly aren’t alone. Implementing positive health and fitness behaviours is a challenge for most people. Life is complex, unique to each individual and there is no one size fits all approach to establishing a better lifestyle, but making positive physiological changes, such as regular exercise and a balanced diet, will certainly help. As a Personal Trainer, a Tutor to aspiring Personal Trainers and someone who has a long-standing relationship with exercise, you might assume that this not an issue I have faced – that’s far from the truth. For many years, I struggled with consistency and would often find myself in the ‘this time it will be different cycle.’
The one thing that I have learnt over those years, though, is that failure to change our behaviour often stems from a lack of understanding of the process of behavioural change itself. The purpose of this article is to take you through the Stages of Behavioural Change (or the Transtheoretical Model) and consider how this relates to anyone embarking on a new health and fitness journey.
If you are a Personal Trainer, you can use this to identify and understand the challenges that a new client will go through. If you would like to improve your lifestyle, this could help you to establish lasting change. If you are already happy with your current lifestyle, this may help you determine what you did to get there and help you sustain it. If you do, however, have concerns about your energy levels or health behaviours, I would recommend speaking with your doctor and/or considering assistance from a Behavioural Psychology Specialist.
What are the Stages of Change?
There are six States of Change in total, and these are;
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Back to work tomorrow. You’ve just finished your 4th takeaway of the weekend and are polishing off your 3rd bottle of wine. You managed to watch 18 episodes of your new series and you’ve taken less than 3,000 steps over the entire weekend. This is a new record – get in! You’ve also got three work socials, which will probably finish late, this week and plan to drink at all of them. It’s only a few drinks, so it’s all good. And if it gets out of hand, a fry-up and hair-of-the-dog will sort you out the next day.
‘Exercise?! Nah – you’re alright, it’s not for me.’
Pre-contemplation is when we are living our current lifestyle habits, with no desire for change. The scenario above shows someone who is struggling for balance in their life, but has not yet felt the need to change. A sedentary lifestyle involving regular high-calorie junk food, excessive alcohol, smoking and lack of sleep is a ticking timebomb. The need for change and desire to achieve better fitness, needs to come internally. Someone must want to make a change and until there is motivation to do so, they are likely to continue their unhealthy habits.
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Back to work tomorrow. One year has passed and you are still in the same routine. You’ve started to notice that your energy levels are at an all-time low and you are no longer getting the same satisfaction from your weekend routine. The Monday morning hangovers are getting worse and your performance at work is declining rapidly. It’s your friend’s wedding next weekend and the designer outfit that you usually wear, won’t fit. You’ve also been to the doctor recently about feeling anxious and it turns out you’ve developed high blood pressure too. The doctor recommends that you address your diet and exercise habits. At your friend’s wedding, the bride and groom look a picture of health, which makes you feel even worse. They tell you that, ‘they used to hate exercise, but since working with their new Personal Trainer, they have never felt so good.’
‘Exercise? Maybe I could give it a go?’
Contemplation is the consideration of change, specifically within the next 6 months. As a Personal Trainer this is generally the stage that someone is at when they make an initial enquiry. It is important to encourage healthy behaviours through active listening, reinforcement, education, and coaxing. The trick here is to lead the individual towards their own motivations and to help them discover that that they have the internal resources for success already.
Some useful tips that can be applied at this point are;
- Provide information and resources that will help highlight the benefits of health changes, for example educational handouts/videos, as well as first-hand experience from someone who has been through similar change.
- Consider their ‘why’. What are their reasons for wanting to make the change? Challenge them to ask themselves, how their life will improve? How will this impact the people in their lives? Will this be a significant improvement?
- Write a decision balance sheet out to weigh up the pros and cons of their new behaviour. What are the benefits? What are the costs? Consider this also for family and friends. Help them visualise their new life – how does it feel?
Essentially, all these methods are tapping into the deep underlying motivations of the individual, as well as creating new ones through education. What was a fleeting thought has now become a desire – time for action! But first…
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Back to work tomorrow. But this time, you’ve had your first consultation with a Personal Trainer. You were surprised at how much your PT was interested in your issues and how willing they were to assist you. During the initial call with your Personal Trainer, you discussed interventions and they helped you to communicate your underlying motivations. You had never felt so empowered and determined to change your life. You were raring to go for the first training session, but your Personal Trainer highlighted the importance of planning and goal setting before the new exercise regime begins.
‘Failing to prepare – is preparing to fail’
Preparation, also known as the ‘Determination Phase’, is when an individual is ready to take action within 30 days. One of the most common mistakes a motivated individual can make, is to bypass the Preparation Stage and head straight into ‘action’. Essentially, this is where we plan our journey towards our goals and consider the resources that we require to get there. Some people can throw their last packet of cigarettes away and never smoke again. But for most, a visit to a smoking cessation nurse, followed by a plan that considers individual barriers and support strategies is far more likely to be successful. Individuals may not have the knowledge and resources to do this effectively (yet), so using the help of a professional is wise – enter, the Personal Trainer.
Some useful tips that can be applied at this point are;
- Clients should complete a health and lifestyle questionnaire to consider the demands of their lifestyle.
- Establish a starting point by taking health and fitness measurements (e.g. resting heart rate, body composition, cardio-vascular fitness tests etc).
- Establish SMART goals (specific, measurable, achievable, realistic and time bound) – ideally they should cover exercise, lifestyle and nutrition.
- Create manageable milestones and sub-targets for long-term goals – breaking a 6 month goal into 6 monthly goals encourages a sense of progression and provides motivation off the highs of success
- Address barriers to success – these could be perceived barriers or things that have halted progress in the past. Plan strategies around them.
- Plan review dates to monitor progress and amend goals or motivations as necessary.
- Have a plan in place for a potential relapse (we will discuss relapses later).
Knowing the general direction to the destination, does not guarantee that finding it. The Preparation Stage is essentially a map. In fact, it’s not a map. It’s a sophisticated SAT NAV system that instructs you when to take the next turn and it’ll re-route if you come off course.
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Back to work tomorrow. This used to feel like a negative thing, but you are two months into your health and fitness journey and have a new-found energy and enthusiasm for life – both personally and professionally. You’ve just finished your latest PT session and it was ‘re-test’ day for your fitness measurements. Your Personal Trainer is delighted to see that you have smashed all your previous results and have shown an excellent level of adherence to the programme. Your blood pressure is back to a normal range and your mental health is better than ever. You feel great. You still enjoy the odd takeaway and trip to the pub with friends, but you now balance this with a frequent exercise regime and healthy eating habits, and your workouts fill you with energy. At the end of every session, your Personal Trainer encourages you to reflect on the progress you are making and more importantly, how much you are enjoying the journey. Oh, and that wedding outfit – it fits like a glove.
‘I think I’ve finally cracked the code!’
The Action Stage is when new behaviour is implemented and is typically the first 6 months of someone’s journey. It can be very short-lived for some, particularly if they haven’t built enough motivational self-talk (Contemplation) and engaged in thorough planning (Preparation), but the aim iis for this to be ongoing and eventually form a new life habit.
Some useful tips that can be applied at this point are;
- Logging progress. Studies show that people are more likely to stay on track when their exercise/nutrition activities are recorded.
- Use technology, such as tracking apps and smart watches to help monitor goals and daily progress
- Encourage them to set motivational reminders – from alarm messages to a desk picture, regular reminders can help to maintain focus.
- Regularly re-test personal stats – you can provide added momentum by highlighting progression every 4- 6 weeks.
- Focus on the journey and not just the outcome. Reflecting on your energy levels after a workout is a great benchmark of success. The journey should also be just as rewarding as the outcome.
- Incite a support network – as well as a Personal Trainer, individuals may look to friends and family for encouragement. A PT can also connect clients on similar journeys through social media groups, support seminars and social events.
Establishing a solid routine that works around an individual’s lifestyle and allows them to get the most out of life is a great achievement. The goal now is to solidify this behaviour and create a lasting habit – for life!
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Today you ran a marathon. You’ve been on this journey for two years and apart from the occasional week, where you had some lapses, you have consistently trained a minimum of 3 x per week since you started. You started because you wanted to feel better about yourself and, mostly, because you wanted to fit in that outfit again. Once you’d achieved that, your Personal Trainer encouraged you to push yourself further and consider new goals. You decided to train for a marathon. You feel fitter, healthier and happier than you ever have before – albeit a little on tired side after a casual 26 miles. The physical and mental health benefits have solidified your relationship with exercise, and you can’t imagine this not being a part of your life now. You shudder at the thought of your old Sunday routine.
‘Exercise? How did I live without it?!’
Establishing a life habit that has such a profound effect on physical and mental wellbeing is a true ‘Eureka’ moment. Once an individual has fully recognised the connection between personal wellbeing and their exercise routine, it’s not something they will want to let go of. The Maintenance Stage typically comes after the first 6 months and it is where long term habits are solidified.
Some useful tips that can be applied at this point are;
- Setting new goals
- Introduce new types of exercise, as the variety can increase interest and motivation.
- Reflection is important and should be scheduled in.
- Encourage them to share their experience
- Encourage balance – when people are restricted, they are more likely to fall off the wagon in the future. Whereas some freedom is more sustainable.
- Schedule in recovery time to allow the body time to restore properly
When an individual is in a position where they are maintaining their positive lifestyle, they will understand that optimal function comes from optimal care. Like a well-kept car, we give it fuel, we service it when needed and we drive it with care. But this doesn’t mean the risk of crashing is removed…
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. Back to work tomorrow. You’ve just finished your 4th takeaway of the weekend and are polishing off your 3rd bottle of wine. You managed to watch 18 episodes of your new boxset and take less than 3,000 steps over the entire weekend. You’ve equalled your old record and it’s Groundhog Day. You had scheduled in some downtime during your holiday and things got a little indulgent on the food and alcohol front. You were thrown out of sync with your usual routine and didn’t feel great on your return. You struggled to get back into the swing of your gym routine and failed to attend on the first week back. This continued to the second week and the takeaway bill is racking up. It’s now been 3 weeks out of your usual routine, and you begin to feel the negative effects of this creeping back in. You pick up the phone and call your Personal Trainer.
‘Exercise?... what does that word mean again?’
A relapse is a consecutive string of negative physiological behaviours, it happens when someone accepts defeat and it can occur at any stage during an individual’s journey. It is, however, significantly less likely to occur when stages 3 – 5 have been applied with necessary interventions. These strategies are designed to flag lapses and provide a nudge to get back on track. The specific strategy that’s needed will depend of the stage, and often the useful tips from the previous stage can be re-deployed.
So, what should you do if you have fallen out of your exercise routine?
If all else fails and individual finds themselves in a Relapse Stage, here are some useful tips and considerations to guide them back on track;
- Consider why this has happened. Are there any barriers that were not addressed during the Preparation Stage? Re-establishing the barriers, will help to ensure it doesn’t happen again.
- Revisit the decision balance sheet used in the Contemplation Phase (or even make a new one!) and consider if there have been any changes. Re-establish motivations and discard any that are no longer important.
- Reflect on the positivity that was felt in the previous journey. Remembering wins reminds an individual that they can be achieved again.
- Don’t dwell – life is not straight forward and at some points, an individual is more vulnerable.
- It’s not ‘starting again.’ It’s better to consider this as detour from the journey, that can be learnt from.
Although a relapse can be demotivating, it needn’t be. Perceived failures can be turned into positives if an individual reflects on them constructively. What went wrong? What can be learnt? Human behaviour has collectively evolved over many years, but we are also evolving as individuals throughout our lifespan. Each experience, positive or negative, provides us with valuable material that we can use to shape our path ahead, as we tread more carefully, back towards our goals.
It’s 7pm on a Sunday. You’ve just finished your first full week of training. The call you had with your Personal Trainer last weekend was just what you needed. They reassured you that this was all part of the process and that there was no need to panic – you’d already planned for this. You arranged a re-focus meeting, and your PT used a variety of strategies to identify the potential triggers of the relapse and reviewed your goals, motivations, and barriers. Your focus is refreshed and your motivation re-ignited. It’s time to continue the journey.
And it feels good…
‘Exercise? Oh, how I’ve missed you!’