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A Prescription for Procrastinators

by Julie Anne Eason on Nov 01, 2005

Ways you can help clients overcome obstacles to exercise.

“I had to work late this week, so I didn’t have time to work out.” “I need to lose weight before I can start exercising.” “I’m late because my dog ate my favorite workout shoes.”

Do these excuses sound familiar? Clients everywhere seem to come up with some unique reasons for skipping workouts or ignoring their trainers’ recommendations. But when you get past the different excuses, they really all come down to the same thing: procrastination. The question is, why do clients behave this way after expressing an intense desire to get in shape and paying good money to hire you?

Six Procrastination Patterns

Linda Sapadin, PhD, is a New York–based psychologist and the author of It’s About Time! The Six Styles of Procrastination and How to Overcome Them (Penguin Books 1996). Sapadin believes that when it comes to procrastination, people tend to follow one of six distinct styles:

  • the perfectionist
  • the worrier
  • the overdoer
  • the defier
  • the dreamer
  • the crisis-maker

So, among your own clients, who are the procrastinators, and more important what can you do about it? For one thing, you can use Sapadin’s approach to identify which avoidance patterns your clients display. In the long run, this information may enable you to design more personalized and more effective exercise programs.

Case Study: The Perfectionist

Kelly came to you for help in losing the 40 pounds she put on during her last pregnancy. You find out she hasn’t joined a gym because she can’t find one with a daycare provider she trusts. When you advise that she instead walk with her baby during the day, she says she doesn’t have the right stroller. Next you suggest that she take a yoga class on the evenings when her husband can watch the baby, but she says his work schedule fluctuates too much to allow her this freedom.

Kelly is the quintessential perfectionist. Perfectionists want all the circumstances to be perfect before they begin any fitness program. They need the right shoes, the right gym, the right trainer and the right time of day. Deep down, they know the world is not perfect. The stars will never align to provide the perfect environment, so they’ll never have to take any real or personal responsibility for achieving their goals.

When designing a program for a perfectionist, Sapadin says, avoid using extreme words such as “success” or “failure.” That’s because this kind of “all-or-nothing” thinking can backfire with perfectionists, who will likely use that as an excuse to blow off their training for the day. Never tell Kelly or any other perfectionist, “You must do 30 minutes of cardio every day.” Instead, say, “You may choose to do your cardio workout in a 30-minute session, or you can break it up into three 10-minute segments throughout the day.”

Perfectionist Tip: Give your perfectionists several alternatives to choose from, so if one choice won’t work for them that day, they have another option to fall back on.

Case Study: The Worrier

Sam was a star quarterback in high school. Now he’s 39 and spends way too much time behind a desk. You suggest Sam might start his exercise program with some light strength training, but he resists and says he’s too embarrassed to be seen in the weight room.

Sam is the personification of the worrier, in that he is the king of “what if”: “What if people laugh at me?” “What if I drop the weights?” Worriers are very concerned with what other people think of them. They tend to spend hours agonizing over which clothes make them look fat, and they’ll avoid the beach or the gym because they don’t want to be seen in a bathing suit or shorts. Worriers live in a small comfort zone, and they have trouble stepping outside its boundaries.

When designing a program for a worrier, says Justin Price, MA, personal fitness trainer, IDEA presenter and author, and owner of The BioMechanics in San Diego, first identify what’s behind the client’s fear factor. Price believes all procrastination stems from a primal fear of failure. “If clients don’t want to be seen in a gym, design a program they can easily do at home,” suggests Price. Over time, this approach will help worriers relinquish their fears and branch out to exercising in a weight room or at the beach.

Worrier Tip: When the “what ifs” creep in, Sapadin says, ask your worrier clients to take the question to its logical conclusion. For example, the response to the question “What happens if I drop the weights?” might be, “I will pick them up again and laugh it off.” By forcing worriers to answer these kinds of questions, they will likely realize that their fears are not that big a deal.

Case Study: The Overdoer

Corey showed up late for your last two sessions and canceled this week’s appointment. She had excellent excuses each time. First she had to finish up a project at work, then her son had a doctor’s appointment, and finally she forgot about the soccer uniforms she was supposed to deliver to school.

Corey is the classic overdoer. Like other overdoers, she genuinely tries to be all things to all people. As a result, she tends to put her own needs last, including her training time with you.

When designing a program for an overdoer, Price suggests, make the most of your time by using compound exercises whenever possible. “See how many muscle groups you can work at the same time,” he advises.

Overdoer Tip: Create a contingency fitness plan for your overdoers. Suggest that they resort to exercising along with videos at home whenever they get overextended, so they don’t miss their daily workout.

Case Study: The Defier

Alan has been a bodybuilder for years. Lately, he’s reached a training plateau and can’t seem to get any stronger. You suggest small modifications to his current fitness program, but when it comes time to work out, he questions your recommendations.

Defiers like Alan have trouble accepting the authority of others. Even though they come to you for help, they resent it when you give them guidance, and they may resist working through the program you’ve designed. They don’t like being told what to do—by anybody. According to Price, “You have to gain their trust, and you develop trust by really listening to them, calling them, being extra attentive.”

When designing a program for a defier, always suggest several options that will help him reach his fitness goal. And remember to include the defier in decisions when you are designing his exercise program.

Defier Tip: Make a list of upper-back or quad exercises, and then let your defier-type clients choose which ones they prefer. When you allow defiers this kind of input, they feel they are part of a team effort.

Case Study: The Dreamer

Brenda is getting married in 6 months. It is her goal to be “the most beautiful bride in the world.” She dreams about the graceful arms and shapely legs she’ll have when she “gets in shape,” but she hasn’t taken a single step to reach her goal.

Dreamers love to plan and fantasize about getting in shape and losing weight. Unfortunately, their dreams are only vague ideas with little or no follow-through. These people need to learn how to set specific goals, using concrete numbers and dates.

When designing an exercise plan for a dreamer, focus attention on the daily steps the client must take to reach her specific goal. Break down the generic “weight loss” dream into a plan of action, such as a 50-pound loss for the year through a series of weekly 1-pound goals. Charts and checklists are helpful, too.

Dreamer Tip: Dreamers tend to have short attention spans and are easily distracted. When you notice a dreamer is starting to lose interest midworkout, sharply focus her attention on the 20 minutes of strength training she still needs to do.

Case Study: The Crisis-Maker

Lily thrives on the constant pressure and demands of her fast-paced job as a newspaper reporter. She admits that she can’t seem to get anything done unless she’s working under a pressing deadline. She wants to tone up before her high-school reunion, but she has waited until the event is just 2 weeks away before starting a serious exercise program.

Crisis-makers live for the adrenaline rush of trying to pull off a great feat at the last minute, and they thrive on any drama along the way to their success. They love to hear, “I don’t know how you do it. You’re a hero! You saved the day again!” They find steady, day-to-day progress boring.

When designing a program for a crisis-maker, keep in mind that drama is the motivating factor for this client. Whatever crisis brought her to you will motivate her for the first few weeks or even months. “It’s the middle of the program where you need to get creative [with a crisis maker],” says Sapadin. “Create mini-crises or challenges to keep the drama high.” Price suggests setting new goals each week to keep things fresh. You could also suggest that this client take up a high-adrenaline activity or sport to give her the rush that she craves.

Crisis-Maker Tip: Make each week a mock rushed situation that calls for reaching a lofty goal. Chances are, crisis-makers will rise to the occasion!

Beyond Procrastination

Everyone procrastinates to some degree, especially when it comes to sticking to a regular exercise program. That’s why the world needs fitness professionals!

Learn how to read your clients’ procrastination personalities, and your programs will work even better. Why? Because your clients will actually do them!

Stand Firm With Procrastinators

No matter what kind of procrastinators you train, chances are they miss sessions or are late to appointments on a regular basis. This can have a draining effect on your own training schedule and your company’s solvency.

“Trainers want to prove they’re accommodating,” says Jim Gavin, PhD. “But accommodating these people is only hurting them. You’re telling the client it’s okay to behave that way.”

An alternative approach, Gavin advises, is to establish policies regarding tardiness and cancellations and familiarize all your clients with these. Being firm about your professional policies is the only way to help procrastinators realize how they are hurting your business and sabotaging their own fitness goals in the process.

Everyone procrastinates to some degree, especially when it comes to sticking to a regular exercise program.

Stay Within Your Scope of Practice

There is a fine line between identifying a client’s procrastination style and overstepping the boundary into actual counseling. Without a proper psychology or life coach background, you could do more harm than good by discussing your client’s reasons for procrastinating. It’s enough that you see the patterns so that you can use this information to motivate the client past obstacles.

James Gavin, PhD, is a professor of applied human sciences at Concordia University in Montreal and author of Psychology for Health/Fitness Professionals (Human Kinetics 1995). He advises that fitness professionals stick to training and avoid straying into the territory of counselors or life coaches, which can be a dangerous step. “[Fitness professionals] just want to help their client [and] prove they’re good guys,” Gavin says. “But a trainer’s job is not to delve into a client’s psychological makeup; it’s to be a workout partner. Trainers train; coaches coach.”

The bottom line: As a trainer or an instructor, it is your job to help people with their exercise regimen, not with their personality problems. While it is useful to know what motivates your clients, you must be careful how you use this information. It’s one thing to give clients encouragement and to tailor their exercise program to suit their personalities. It is quite another thing to probe too deeply into their psychological makeup, warns Gavin.

IDEA Fitness Journal, Volume 2, Issue 10

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About the Author

Julie Anne Eason IDEA Author/Presenter

Julie Anne Eason is a freelance writer specializing in health and fitness topics. Contact her through her website,