Fitness pros know successful training programs require time, progression
and individualization. Yet trainers often have clients who just don't
achieve their goals-they fail to lose weight or they give up after a few
months-despite nutrition and fitness programming grounded solidly in
science. Given our dedication to empowering our clients to make positive
life changes, this can be disappointing or even maddening. Why does this
The answer lies in the science of behavior change. Significant research
findings show that behavior change strategies are essential to helping
people adopt the habits required to reach health and fitness goals and to
improve life quality.
It's not enough for a client to decide to lose 25 pounds or to sign up for
training three times per week. Each individual requires specific support.
For example, a client may need to learn what foods to eat and what triggers
him to overeat. She may need help mastering the best exercises and
discovering how to avoid making excuses for not training.
The bottom line is that even when people say they want to be healthier,
they need specific reinforcement to overcome counterproductive habits and
attitudes-and they need to understand how those old patterns developed in
the first place.
Fitness facility owners and managers, program directors, group fitness
instructors and personal trainers who learn how to provide this behavior
change support can become more effective drivers of change-boosting client
retention, creating business opportunities and helping people to achieve
lasting success. Here's an introduction to the science that can help make
Defining Behavior Change Science
Behavior change science explores evidence-based methods that promote healthy behaviors, such as
staying physically active, maintaining a healthy weight, and abstaining
from tobacco and excessive alcohol use. Perhaps the best way to understand
it is to see how it can be applied.
BEHAVIOR CHANGE SCIENCE IN ACTION
Bill Ross, NASM-CPT and Master Trainer and a health and life coach in
Denver, shares this client story to illustrate how to apply behavior change
science to fitness training:
Courtney* wanted to lose 180 pounds. She was an emotional eater with major
fears of exercising in a gym. Ross and Courtney first addressed emotional
eating. Courtney wrote down her thoughts and memories when she felt like
she needed to eat. This activity helped Courtney realize every time she
felt sad or upset as a child, she was given food. Understanding that she
often ate when she wasn't actually hungry enabled her to identify her
eating triggers and change this behavior.
Ross and Courtney also addressed her fear of being judged when exercising
in front of others. He scheduled every training session for Courtney when a
lot of people were around and kept Courtney's focus on the workout. After
six sessions, Ross asked Courtney if she had noticed a person wearing a
funny outfit. She answered no and realized that if she didn't notice that
person, no one else was watching or judging her either. After 18 months of
training, Courtney lost 160 pounds and changed her life forever.
Courtney's example shows that applying behavior change principles goes well
beyond offering motivation and positive support. Courtney needed specific
insights on the habits and ways of thinking that prevented her from
achieving her fitness and weight loss goals. This case study also
demonstrates how important it is to be specific when applying behavior
change science, while making the information relatable rather than
BEING SPECIFIC-AND SCIENTIFIC
"Using scientific principles of behavior change consists of knowing a
client well, understanding the driving forces behind all behavior and
[applying] the specific tactics a trainer can use to get results," says
Erin A. McGill, MA, NASM-CPT, senior
director of product development for NASM and AFAA. "It's the difference
between telling a client, 'Do some cardio and do some pushups this week,'
versus, 'We're going to do resistance training in a circuit-style format
three times this week. Each session will be total-body exercises …
and we will make sure you get benefits from both strength and
cardiorespiratory training.' " As McGill points out, instead of
relying on intuition, trainers can use proven methods of behavioral therapy
to help people to change bad habits for good.
PUTTING A FRIENDLY SPIN ON THE SCIENCE
"One misunderstanding by fitness professionals is that behavioral change
science is very clinical," says Russell Wynter, NASM-CPT and Master
Trainer, and co-owner of Madsweat in Scottsdale, Arizona. "I found that my
clients respond better when it's kept light."
Applying behavioral science is just one part of the process to help make
clients succeed, Wynter says. Using the NASM-BCS, an educational program on
behavioral change science (see Case Study: John's Transformation),
"gives us a systematic way to take our clients through making changes by
using simple strategies that they can implement on a daily basis." However,
fitness professionals can choose to share that information in a way that
feels personalized and friendly, not clinical.
Theories of Behavior Change
Behavioral change scientific theories look at reasons underlying why people do what they do.
Cognitive behavioral theory and social cognitive theory
are most relevant to fitness and weight loss. CBT focuses on internal
cues and the individual's role in altering their own negative perceptions,
while SCT uses the external influence of positive social cues to inspire and
support change in an individual.
DEFINING COGNITIVE BEHAVIORAL THEORY
People respond to their perception of a situation-not the objective facts.
Cognitive behavioral theory, therefore, focuses on how a person's thoughts,
emotions and behaviors are connected and affect one another. For example,
eating in response to feelings of sadness or distress-instead of
hunger-reveals the connection between emotions and behavior.
Cognitive behavior interventions help people identify thinking patterns
that trigger these kinds of feelings so they can change the targeted
behaviors (NASM 2014). In a cognitive behavioral study with 316
participants with obesity, intervention group subjects learned
goal-setting, action-planning, barrier-management and self-monitoring
strategies. At a 2-year follow-up, investigators found that those who had
learned these skills continued to lose weight, maintain exercise and follow
healthy eating habits (Göhner et al. 2012).
DEFINING SOCIAL COGNITIVE THEORY
People learn behaviors in social contexts and become influenced by personal
and environmental factors. For example, if you see a role model do
something, you're much more likely to do it yourself. Self-efficacy-a person's confidence to take actions to achieve
goals regardless of obstacles-is another important aspect of this theory.
Goal setting and positive reinforcement, therefore, are tools of this
method to boost self-efficacy and increase the likelihood of successful
behavioral change. For lasting weight loss and increased physical activity,
social cognitive theory is the most-often-applied behavioral health theory
in research studies (Joseph et al. 2016).
McGill offers an example of how a personal trainer would apply this method.
"The trainer would say, 'We're going to work on your goals. Goal setting is
important for a number of reasons. I want you to do the first draft, and
then we will review them together next session. Think about your end goal
and the things you have to do to get there. These are process goals.' Then,
after goals have been set and are achieved, the trainer would offer the
following: 'You did great this month and hit your goals. Your homework is
to write up what was different and how it made you feel.' "
This example illustrates how a trainer can use positive coaching, goal
setting and positive reinforcement. These tools build a client's
self-confidence to achieve fitness and weight objectives. The trainer can
help a client understand the specific behaviors they need to accomplish
goals and to increase the chances of long-term success.
A "Change" That's Worth Making
Applying these theories to your own fitness training can be straightforward
and ultimately make the difference between success and failure.
"Incorporating behavior change principles with exercise science programming
increases a trainer's value to each client, not only monetarily, but also
as the expert who can help a client change behavior patterns that may have
existed since childhood," Ross says. "My client success rate increased from
65% to 98% by implementing behavior change in training programs."
For fitness professionals who want to make a lasting impact on a client's
life and health, understanding behavioral change science may be the
* Name changed for client confidentiality.