Yes, it’s almost that time again when we begin to eat, drink and be merry—maybe a little too much! And those in the fitness business know what that means: frustrated clients potentially falling off the healthy wagon. That “fall” doesn’t wait until autumn is over, either: Halloween—with its glut of candy, whether left over or toted home by kids or to the office by co-workers—begins the avalanche of temptations. Afterward follows boulder after boulder of resolve-wrecking traditions, including pumpkin-flavored drinks and desserts, traditional Thanksgiving spreads (sometimes at more than one home!), the cookie exchanges and get-togethers of December, and the seemingly inevitable appetizers and cocktails of New Year’s Eve. At the end, many clients find themselves many pounds heavier and feeling defeated before they even begin to tackle the twin New Year’s resolutions to “eat better and exercise more.”
Of course, as a fitness professional, you know it’s easier to avoid gaining those holiday pounds than it is to lose them later. Secretly, your clients know it, too. What they don’t know is how to address the mindsets and habits that lead them to overindulge year after year.
To help you help them stay on the healthy wagon—beginning with the season of haunted hayrides and continuing through the weeks of one-horse-open-sleigh rides—we asked NASM Master Trainers for their best advice. Here are the behavior modification techniques and practical tactics they suggest. (Learn how to become an NASM Master Trainer.)
PART 1: THE MINDSETS THAT CAUSE TROUBLE
OVERLY AMBITIOUS WINTER GOALS
Timing plays a key role in helping new and existing clients achieve practical goals, and obviously the holidays are a time of high stress, which can derail the best of intentions if a client takes on too much too soon.
“Right before the holidays, we often see new clients who want to go from the couch to a full-fledged exercise program, as well as completely overhaul their diet,” notes Kinsey Mahaffey, NASM Master Trainer and a health coach at The Train Station in Houston.
The problem, she says, is that they haven’t stopped to think about the fact that they are in the middle of a busy season winding down the year at work, they have a houseful of distant relatives coming to visit, and they agreed to prepare a four-course meal for the holidays. Mahaffey recommends guiding clients toward a fall/winter action plan that is realistic and making a plan for progression once life calms down.
“Talk with clients about what is reasonable and possible right now, given the other demands on their time,” she says. “Maybe it’s as simple as committing to just showing up to one session per week, drinking an extra glass of water daily or devoting 10–15 minutes each day to a walk.”
The idea is that if you help clients select one simple, doable task to focus on and have them report back on their progress, they are more likely to feel positive about the action they are taking and will be less likely to burn out.
HELPLESSNESS IN THE FACE OF TEMPTATION
Take time to help clients reframe their choices through a behavioral lens, starting with managing expectations, says Andrew Mills, NASM Master Trainer and president of Achieve Wellness in St. Louis.
“People make logical decisions when they are calm, but when they are stressed, they inevitably become more emotional and impulsive,” says Mills. He works with clients to help them identify their holiday-related stress trigger points so the clients aren’t caught off guard.
“When you have thought through how you will respond to a situation if it arises, you have something to fall back on when you catch yourself in that phase,” he points out. For example, maybe a client tends to scarf the leftover cake because she’s annoyed to be cleaning the kitchen while everyone else lounges. One way to deal with this, says Mills, might be to “help [clients] pre-identify something they can set aside that’s healthier to eat, so they are ready when this inevitable situation arises.”
Emotional eating related to stress is just one challenge during the holidays. The other is that there’s flat out too much temptation, and it’s everywhere, points out Mahaffey—at the office, at family gatherings, at holiday parties and almost everywhere else you go. Action plans help with this, too. If a client’s co-workers like to bring sweets to the break room, maybe the client will decide to take the longer route to the copy machine so he doesn’t see or smell the food, thereby bypassing the temptation.
Remember that a holiday plan of action can’t be based on complete self-denial. Rather, encourage clients to be mindful about the choices they will make. “Have your client decide ahead of time what indulgences are ‘worth it’ during the holidays, whether it’s the cake her mom only bakes once a year or a special chocolate treat she has on Christmas Day,” says Mahaffey. “Then have her write down those choices as a reminder and something to look forward to.”
A HOLIDAY FOCUS ON FUN, NOT FOOD
Most of us set future-oriented goals, such as “I want to run a marathon this spring” or “I want to lose 20 pounds.” During the holidays, these dreams may fade into the distance as clients struggle to meet the more immediate demands of the season. So, Mills works with his clients to identify what he calls the “value-based behavior” that will help them move closer to their long-term goals and stay on track in the short term.
For example, if a client has the goal of losing weight but gets tripped up at big family meals, Mills has her focus on the values she is searching for when her family is in town. Examples might be building bonds by reminiscing, playing games, laughing together and creating new traditions
“I help clients remember that what’s important at a family gathering is the conversation and the enjoyment that comes from the company, not what everyone is eating,” he says. “I help them see that what they decide to eat has no bearing on the joy that everyone is getting from being together.”
You can even help your client develop a script for deftly sidestepping these situations; see “Assertiveness Training: Help Clients Avoid Giving In to Guilt.”
AN “ALL-OR-NOTHING” ATTITUDE
Inevitably, the best-laid plans get derailed—especially during the holidays when our schedules become overloaded. Often, this means exercise and nutrition take a back seat. Mahaffey swears by the Tiny Habits® concept pioneered by BJ Fogg, PhD, director of the Behavior Design Lab at Stanford University (tinyhabits.com).
The goal is to help clients adopt a new habit by breaking it down into smaller, more achievable steps. This tactic can also be used to help people sustain a habit when “life happens.”
As an example, if you have a client who is committed to running three times a week but is constantly postponing his workouts, give him an alternative to skipping his run altogether. Help him think of the smallest version (or versions) of this habit that he could do—perhaps going for a 5- to 10-minute run or simply putting on his running shoes.
“This keeps the habit intact and helps keep healthy behaviors sustainable over time so they don’t get dropped when life happens,” explains Mahaffey.
PART 2: THE TACTICS THAT KEEP CLIENTS ON TRACK
HOLIDAY CONTESTS WITH DESIRABLE PRIZES
Mahaffey plans an annual “Holiday Hustle,” a studiowide challenge to keep clients accountable during the holidays. Here’s how it works:
First, Mahaffey asks participants to set a personal goal for how many days a week they would like to exercise. She stresses the importance of focusing the challenge around the number of sessions or minutes of exercise completed, rather than on pounds lost, to build good habits.
Then, clients can choose to compete in the public version of the event, in which attendance and prizes are tracked on a leader board in the gym, or to participate more privately, tracking attendance on their own worksheet and not publicizing their results.
To keep the competition relatively fair for everyone during the busy season, Mahaffey advises allowing clients to book extra sessions for extra points on weeks when they are able, to help offset any travel that precludes their attendance at regular classes.
Mahaffey finds that the competition is most successful when it is short enough to stay interesting but long enough to be challenging. Coincidentally, the roughly 6-week period from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve provides that perfect timeline.
After tallying the results and declaring first-, second- and third-place winners, Mahaffey offers these top three participants a “healthy” prize, such as a free training session or a gift card for a massage, fitness apparel or a healthy grocery store.
The intention of the contest is to keep clients accountable and motivated during the holidays, but the bonus is that it can start a conversation about prioritizing health during any busy time in life. “[After the competition,] talk to them about what a great example this was of how they can make exercise happen when there’s a lot going on,” she recommends. “Funny how when there’s a prize at stake, they’re more likely to make the effort to reschedule rather than just cancel.”
SPECIAL CLASSES WITH UNIQUE THEMES
It can be hard for clients to stay motivated when lots of exciting holiday activities are competing for their time and attention. Nino Magaddino, NASM Master Trainer with Max Flex Fitness in Naples, Florida, says his clients love it when he throws something different at them, such as a holiday workout with a “12 Days of Fitness” theme.
Most trainers have seen some version of this, but basically you count up from 1 to 12 or down from 12 to 1. He prefers to count “down,” like this:
- 12 squats
- 12 squats, 11 jumping jacks
- 12 squats, 11 jumping jacks, 10 plank rows . . . (etc.)
See “Sample Workout Program: Applying the Peripheral Heart Action System” below for a helpful way to select and alternate among workout moves.
Another special workout format you could offer is a “sampler” class, in which clients participate in 20 minutes of indoor cycling, then 20 minutes of step, then 20 minutes of boot camp, for example. By filling the hour with a variety of activities, you keep the workout fresh and fun—and maybe even inspire die-hard indoor cyclists to add a boot camp class to their weekly workouts.
The point is to schedule something that will entice clients to make (and stick to) a commitment to come to class because it’s a bit different from their regular routine.
ADDED ATTENTION FROM AN EXPERT NUTRITIONIST
Burning calories is important for clients, but so is stopping themselves from eating those calories in the first place, says Matt Boyer, NASM Master Trainer and a personal trainer at Anytime Fitness in Bedford, Indiana.
Boyer knows it’s always valuable for clients to meet with a registered dietitian, but this is especially helpful during the holidays when clients are surrounded by tempting goodies just waiting to derail progress. Before the “eating season” begins, Boyer puts together a special package in which he partners with Wholehearted Nutrition (owned by his wife, Amanda, an RDN) to help clients get the input they need.
SUPPORT AND ACCOUNTABILITY FROM PEER GROUPS
Are people less likely to eat that extra cookie or skip their morning run if they have to tell someone about it? Maybe. That’s why Boyer finds holiday accountability groups to be an effective strategy for helping clients stick with their routines even when life gets busy. An in-person group offers a camaraderie that some people enjoy, but a virtual group is also easy to set up, says Boyer. In the latter, members can correspond via text, email or their favorite social media platform.
When creating groups, Boyer finds it useful to place clients with others who have similar interests or goals—say, one group may want to stick with marathon training, while another might be full of fitness newbies who are just starting their healthy journey. “When group members meet online or in person, it can be helpful for them to discuss the similar challenges they are facing and support one another during a tough time of year,” Boyer notes.
REGULAR FACE-TO-FACE CHECK-INS
It’s tempting to put check-ins on the back burner when your calendar is full, but they can be more important than ever at this time of year. These quick meetings can help keep clients on track and allow you to talk them through potential upcoming stumbling blocks.
If clients have just started working with Mills, he might consider the holidays as a time to collect data by having them keep a food diary, noting what they ate and what was going on before, during and afterward. “Sometimes, new clients are not quite ready for an action-oriented goal,” says Mills. They want to make changes, but they don’t yet know what changes to make or why. “During the holidays, we can pinpoint what’s important to them, and then we can implement those changes in the future, when it’s appropriate.”
For clients who have been with him for a while, Mills holds regular one-on-one mini-sessions in which he helps them set SMART goals (Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Realistic and Timely) and then assigns homework based on each client’s particular needs. Often, the homework is related to setting boundaries and creating scripts like the one below.
Maybe a client says he can’t work out when he is visiting his mom because of the long list of projects she is sure to have waiting for him. “That’s misleading,” says Mills. “Instead, he can say, ‘Hey, mom, I’m going for a walk because my health is important to me, but I can help you after.’ When you phrase it like that, there’s no way someone could object.”
By helping clients have the words to protect time for exercise, Mills finds they are more likely to adhere to a workout schedule, even if it looks different from their normal one.
After an event (such as a holiday contest or 5K), Mills schedules a check-in session with clients to look at what worked and where they need to improve. He uses a numerical scale, asking clients to rate themselves from 0 (they didn’t even try) to 10 (they performed exactly as they had planned). That offers a place from which to start moving the needle incrementally. “We’ll hone in on what they did well and then find something they can do a little better, maybe to move from a 6 to a 7.”
MOTIVATION FROM EMAILS AND SOCIAL MEDIA POSTS
Now is the time to fire up your client communication, Magaddino says. Yes, you may be inundated with other writing demands, from holiday cards to thank-you notes. But don’t let that weaken your resolve to reach out using a variety of formats, from social media to email newsletters.
Magaddino’s weekly email update includes motivation in the form of healthy holiday recipes and workouts that clients can tackle in a shortened time frame. He also keeps his social media primed with exercise demonstrations performed by different clients each time, including some husband-and-wife teams.
KEEP YOUR NAME ON YOUR CLIENTS’ “NICE LIST”
When it comes to written communications, Magaddino says that the goal is to stay on your clients’ radar throughout the busy holiday season so when your email or post shows up, it plants the seed to fit in a workout.
And that’s the thread that binds these ideas together: Take the time now to plan far enough ahead to help your clients plan ahead, in turn. By being a model of preparedness, you will show them—and yourself—that it really is possible to enjoy the holidays while maintaining a commitment to nutrition and fitness.