The Evolution Method
Strategies for beating the “diet mind-set” and establishing a sustainable 80/20 living program for overweight clients.
“Ellen” had great success with her low-carbohydrate diet. She lost 14 pounds in 5 weeks and felt like she was in control. No longer was she a slave to the chocolate chip cookie binge that had been her evening ritual. She was proud that she had exercised every day, waking up muscles she didn’t even know she had.
But, like the flip of a switch, the bottom fell out of her plan; she reverted back to old habits and gained back 11 pounds in 3 weeks. Each day, as she stopped at the bakery for her sugar fix on the way home from work, she knew that soon she would have to get back to the program that had worked so well for her.
Ellen represents millions of Americans who are deeply entrenched in the “diet mind-set,” a no-win cycle that makes lasting weight loss impossible. This brainwashing results from years of reading magazine articles and diet books and watching infomercials that sell myths—in addition to supplements, creams and gadgets—that shape the way a dieter thinks about food, exercise and her body.
The dieter develops the expectation that weight loss requires deprivation and an incredible amount of willpower, but that it can work, given a strict adherence to a magical formula. Despite the numerous red flags she experiences on such a diet—such as feeling hungry, having to avoid favorite foods, and not feeling comfortable in social situations—she is unable to see that her program is seriously flawed. The scale becomes the ultimate determinant of success, and if her weight doesn’t melt away, she quickly jumps ship. Yet she is so strongly conditioned that, after a short hiatus, she catches wind of the next diet craze and signs on, determined to find the right set of rules that will help her lose weight permanently.
In its wake, the “diet mind-set” has left a defeated army of frustrated and resigned individuals whose lifestyles have become increasingly erratic. A telltale sign is “all-or-nothing” thinking, exemplified by Ellen’s elimination of all sweets from her diet and exercising every day. She readily embraces rigid rules and plunges headlong into her program to finish it, as if it were a term paper due at the end of the week. While “all-or-nothing” thinking produces quick results and provides a sense of control, it fails miserably at achieving long-term weight loss. The client believes that unbridled enthusiasm is healthy, and looks to others, including her personal trainer, for approval. All too often the professional inadvertently reinforces this all-or-nothing thinking of a client by not helping the client set more realistic goals. Eventually she burns out and becomes part of the 80-plus percent of the population unable to establish a consistent exercise program.
With an obesity epidemic at hand, health and fitness professionals need to not only discourage unsustainable diet and exercise plans but emphasize a process that enables the client to take responsibility and gain control over her lifestyle habits. Her plan needs to enable her to negotiate real-life events—the injuries, vacations, illnesses and stress that typically derail her weight loss.
The Evolution Coaching Method™ is a framework for personal trainers to effectively move clients from dieting junkie to 80/20 living. In 80/20 living, the client is empowered to choose healthy behaviors approximately 80 percent of the time and “less healthy” behaviors, by choice or by “slip,” the other 20 percent.
The method comprises six elements: structure, flexibility, solutions, outcomes, control and support. A trained coach can recognize the pitfalls of the “diet mind-set” and provide guidance that helps clients develop the skills to achieve a healthy body weight and a sustainable lifestyle.
Structure represents the specific eating and exercise plan. Structures that claim to utilize a breakthrough approach are used to sell diet books and gym memberships because people are attracted to being told exactly what to do or not do. Unfortunately these programs are touted as the solution rather than the foundation from which to build solutions. A good structure is individualized to fit the client and should be:
- flexible. It allows those who don’t eat particular foods or have access to a gym to customize the eating or exercise plan to their lifestyle.
- inclusive. It allows consumption of all foods and provides guidelines for eating frequency and portion size.
- clear. It shows exactly what to do to make healthy choices.
- changeable. It adapts to different schedules, vacations, holidays, etc.
- livable. It allows treats or indul- gences along the way without going off the program.
- balanced. It defines how to include indulgences and still feel in control.
- comfortable. It does not cause feelings of deprivation and adapts if hunger or pain is experienced.
Flexibility must be embedded into the program from the start, accommodating the client’s schedule, ability and preferences. A client who works long hours may be more successful walking for short periods throughout the day rather than trying to schedule a longer workout time. You will likely recognize additional needs for flexibility after working with her for a while. “Situational” flexibility can help a client effectively manage unexpected obstacles, such as a business dinner, by using trial and error and previously learned skills or strategies. Coaching her to have a more constructive reaction to undesirable behavior can lessen the long-term effects of that behavior.
A widespread misconception is that flexibility undermines success. The truth is flexibility is at the very heart of success. Your client may shy away from flexibility because it is difficult to assess and may make her feel that she is “letting herself off the hook” or not sticking to the program. Rigid structures have the advantage of being much easier to follow temporarily because they tell the client exactly what to do and what not to do.
Solutions provide the “how to” for integrating flexibility into structure. You can help your client negotiate the gray area of flexibility by providing process goals and problem-solving skills to create specific plans. The client can have flexibility and still feel like she is on the program. You also help the client realize that even the “perfect” solution has consequences that need consideration. Your challenge is to convince the client that a less ambitious “plan B” can actually provide greater benefits. You could say, “A compromise would be to attend two aerobics classes each week (instead of four) and walk with your husband on three other nights.” While the overall intensity of her program may be somewhat diminished, she is more likely to sustain the plan because it also nurtures her relationship with her spouse.
At this level you focus on helping your client develop independent skills and healthier expectations. She starts seeing past the diet phase of the program and begins identifying realistic weight loss expectations and noticing other beneficial changes, such as increased energy, improved mood and decreased medications. She notices that she enjoys dancing, walking in the park or going swimming. By establishing rapport, you help her evolve through this phase.
If your technique is effective, you can tell the truth without being discouraging and strengthen confidence without resorting to false promises, exaggerations or condescension. For example you could say, “I know you are counting on leg exercises to trim your thighs, but remember that spot reducing is a myth. Strength training gives you better balance and more power in your tennis game. Those things you can control through training. The shape of your thighs has more to do with genetics and your own perception. Focus on increasing your strength and you will look at your thighs differently.”
Your client may aspire to goals that other people have established. You can help the client overcome external influences such as weight loss claims made by the media. Do this by educating her about what healthy expectations are (amount of weight loss per week and overall number of exercise sessions or minutes per week) and support the process by encouraging her efforts to work toward these expectations.
It is imperative to avoid complimenting or rewarding unhealthy expectations and behaviors. It can be very tempting to support your client when she says she wants to lose 15 pounds this month, or encourage her when she says she hasn’t eaten chocolate for 3 months or missed a day of exercise in 4 weeks. Tactfully steer the client toward more moderate expectations. You might say, “You’ve shown a lot of motivation by giving up chocolate completely, but if you really miss it, you might think about reintroducing it to your plan by going out for a special treat once a week.” By fostering these healthier expectations, the trainer helps the client develop “empowered accountability.”
Control helps your client take ownership of her program. As she develops “empowered accountability,” she becomes better able to reach healthier goals, takes more responsibility for her choices and starts building confidence. You will help her notice and reprogram her self-talk to be more positive and accepting. A greater self-acceptance will enable her to choose outcome goals that she owns and will give her confidence to meet these goals.
When your client makes undesirable or unhealthy choices, you can encourage her to accept responsibility, learn from her experience and move forward. For example she might tell you she fell off the Ben and Jerry’s wagon and into a whole pint of Cherry Garcia a few nights earlier and feels really bad about herself. You can respond by saying, “The big picture is that you are only 1,000 calories over your plan for the whole week. It won’t significantly slow your progress. Let’s develop a plan to help you spread those calories out and enjoy them even more next time!”
Likewise don’t forget to support her in taking proper credit for her successes and not let her attribute them to luck or outside influences.
The emphasis of this element is to consciously assess and develop a support network that will help your client maintain her lifestyle changes. The ultimate goal is to strengthen her internal support or self-efficacy (although external sources of support are crucial to improving her internal support mechanisms), especially in the early stages of change. Encourage your client to look at the people in her network of family, friends and coworkers to evaluate who is truly supportive, mostly supportive, neutral or sabotaging.
The intention of the Evolution Coaching Method is to create an environment that facilitates lifestyle change for the client. Our case study (see “Ellen’s Case Study: How the Elements Work” on page 24) is a very simplified and condensed version of the process. Though you will have clients who are ripe for a positive change and progress very quickly, like Ellen, others will be more resistant and may “recycle” through the stages of change many times.
When a client cannot give up the notion that being extra good will result in faster or better weight loss results, negotiating life’s ups and downs is nearly impossible. However, as the coach you can’t just tell the client to be patient, let go of being perfect, or ignore what the scale says.
Our clients who have created a healthy 80/20 environment using the Evolution Coaching Method consistently tell us that the crucial skill of the coach is to help the client believe in and own the process. Recently a long-time client put that into words for us. She said that it is “tactfully giving the client what she needs while at the same time convincing her that it was her idea!” The fact is, many of the best ideas during the process do come from the client. However the coach must be able to plant the seeds of those ideas by “reading between the lines,” as our client put it.
While the majority of the weight loss industry churns out more quick-fix diets, the responsibility for changing what constitutes healthy and reasonable weight loss resides with true health and fitness professionals.
Take responsibility for modeling healthy behaviors and reflect that attitude to your clients. Help them clearly see the benefits of moderation versus “all or nothing” and let them evolve toward lasting lifestyle change. The possibilities are endless and the benefits are sustainable—a far cry from anything diet marketers can deliver!
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When Ellen began her low-carb program, she didn’t miss her favorite foods and she found the diet plan easy to follow. Her exercise program gained momentum and she found herself at the gym three times per week to work with a trainer and two times per week for aerobics classes. She also walked on Saturday and Sunday afternoons with her husband.
The demands on Ellen at work began to increase and, after a string of late nights, she woke up feeling exhausted. At work one day, she started craving her old comfort foods, and on her way to the gym she stopped at the bakery. She never made it to the gym. A few days later, at a weekend social event, the bottom fell out and she ate a large helping of lasagna. She felt a mixture of relief, regret and anger. After another piece of lasagna, she “snacked” on popcorn throughout the evening and then had a big piece of chocolate cake.
On Monday morning she felt like she had blown her program. When she saw that she had gained 3 pounds, her motivation hit a low point. By the end of the week, her eating habits had returned to her preprogram “normal” and she wasn’t exercising at all.
She came to us to get back on track. She was convinced the low-carb approach and her old exercise routine worked well and she was using us to regain her motivation.
What Went Wrong?
Ellen’s old program had no flexibility element! The rigid structure was based on “good versus bad” foods. Any time she ate “bad” foods she felt guilty and frustrated. Sometimes she immediately got back on track, but other times it took several days.
Her upcoming family vacation had her thinking about trying to look really good and she was anxious to jump-start her diet and exercise to speed up the process. She also admitted to wanting to be extra good until the vacation because she was worried that while on vacation she would struggle with all the bad foods around and eating out at restaurants on most nights.
Ellen was looking for low-carb recipes, menu ideas and foods she could eat at her two favorite restaurants because she thought the reason she quit before was that she had gotten bored with her food.
She wanted an exercise program that would whip her into shape as quickly as possible. She was ready to go right back to her previous level and wanted a trainer to push her.
Our team, which includes a registered dietitian, suggested that her structure emphasize whole-grain carbs and fruits and vegetables with limited—but not eliminated—simple carbs and sweets. We also suggested she focus on consistency in exercise, including activities of daily living, rather than doing as much as she could fit into a workout.
Creating Flexibility and Solutions
We proposed that Ellen add some extra calories to her program by using a weekly “wild card” for special occasions. We suggested a 200-calorie wild card that would allow a couple of glasses of wine or half of a dessert during special weekend dinners.
Next we suggested that she reset her exercise goal for the week. Instead of always getting 5 days of cardiovascular exercise and more than 250 minutes per week (3 days of 45 minutes and 2 days of 60 minutes) without regard for outside stresses and pressures, we had her aim for a total of 180 to 240 minutes over 3 to 5 days.
Given her work schedule, this was still a lot of exercise; therefore, we encouraged her to include daily activity in the equation. We discovered that an average day for her was 4,000 steps on a pedometer. We recommended that every 2,000 steps above her 4,000 be equal to 20 minutes of exercise. This gave her a goal to aim for on those days when work would not allow “regular” exercise.
Outcomes Element Part I
After 2 weeks Ellen weighed in only 3 pounds lighter and was incredibly disappointed. She said that she would never make her weight goal for her vacation and she was frustrated because she had worked so hard.
We had coached Ellen that her outcome goals were unrealistic, and yet she had hoped that she could still make her vacation goal. We reminded her of what she was doing well. We asked her to identify other positive outcomes associated with her lifestyle changes.
She thought about this and said she did feel much better. She was still disappointed, but noticed she had more energy during the day, was able to control hunger using snack calories, and her exercise program made her work around the house easier and improved her self-confidence. We encouraged her to write these things down and add positive changes regularly.
Control Element Part I
Ellen tried to use our weekly wild card suggestion, but was still striving for perfection, and the extra calories made her feel guilty. Three weeks into the program she celebrated her parents’ 50th wedding anniversary with her family, a special event with many champagne toasts and spectacular desserts.
On Monday she said it was excruciating to pass on the temptations, it took tremendous effort and lots of willpower, but she was proud of following her plan.
We gently reminded Ellen that perfection was a setup for future frustration. This is a tricky coaching situation. It is important to make the client feel like she did do great, but at the same time show her where she could have used more flexibility, had a little more fun and still maintained her diet.
We reviewed good choices she made and asked her to describe the most tempting foods she passed on. We picked a couple of these treats, estimated the calories, and added the calories to her weekly tally. The weekly average was still reasonable and it demonstrated that she could have allowed some indulgences and stayed true to her plan.
Finally we discussed how she would have felt on Monday if she had carried out this plan. She said she still would have felt proud and we pointed out that she also would not have felt deprived.
Control Element Part II
A few weeks later, while out with friends, Ellen gave in to the temptation to drink a margarita. This led to another, most of a basket of chips and dessert.
Contrary to what Ellen expected, we did not say, “We told you so.” We broke down the evening and pointed out where and how she might have changed her behavior. First we reviewed how feelings of deprivation for such a long time set her up to “crack” under pressure. We reassured her that this one episode was not the end of her program and that, overall, it would have very little effect on her success. We talked about strategies to use preceding an evening out that help decrease the chances of losing control (i.e., having a healthy snack in the late afternoon), and strategies to use in the restaurant to cut down on calories (i.e., skipping the chips as an appetizer; drinking water and alcohol; waiting until the meal arrives to order alcohol; planning ahead of time to share dessert).
We also took this opportunity to remind Ellen of how she was benefiting from her program. She had added a few more positive changes by this time and the list reinforced how much effort she had put into the program and the great results she had achieved.
She had begun to use the more flexible exercise schedule. She had missed 3 days in a row before we talked to her, yet she was able to slowly get back on track when she realized her program wasn’t ruined. She met her goals of lifting weights (though only once) and combining cardiovascular minutes and “virtual minutes” (2,000 steps = 20 minutes) for a total of more than 180 minutes for the week.
Outcomes Element Part II: Ellen Begins to Evolve
She was just a month away from her vacation and Ellen had gone through her first big setback since coming into our program. The Mexican dinner with friends was a great learning opportunity and, finally, Ellen was in a place where she could listen effectively. She realized that her expectations of giving up fun foods, alcohol and dessert on special occasions had been unrealistic. She began to understand how important it was to have special treats once in a while and how much pressure was taken off of her once she had no expectations of perfection. She was happy with her progress even though her weight loss was slower than she had expected. She said she didn’t feel like she was on a diet and was surprised she was losing weight since adding the weekly wild card.
A few weeks later Ellen came back from her family vacation very excited that she was able to eat “normally” and not draw any unwanted attention. She was pleased that most of her family supported her healthy eating. She was even able to share some of her healthy recipes with them. Her sister walked with her and vowed to meet her at the park a couple of evenings each week back home.
Upon returning home the only regret Ellen had was that she had exercised just 4 days for about 25 minutes each time—well below her expected 3-plus hours of cardiovascular exercise—and she had not made it to the gym at all. She was upset that this was even less than her more flexible goals that we had helped her set. However, she found that having an appointment with her trainer scheduled when she returned helped immensely. Her trainer did an outstanding job of helping her see that the time off not only did not set her back, but it refreshed and motivated her to resume training.
Outcomes Element Part III
Ellen had evolved to the point that she could set reasonable goals on her own and find flexible solutions for achieving them. She realized that she could have extra calories or miss exercise without sacrificing her whole program. She had seen firsthand how holding on too tight was a setup for failure and had grown to anticipate and welcome those times when she could have an extra glass of wine or take a vacation and not worry about perfectly maintaining her exercise regimen.
Finally, and most important, she had learned to forgive the unexpected unhealthy choices and undesirable behaviors when they crept back into her life, and she was able to get back on track quickly.
- Listen for when the client may be simply telling you what she thinks you want to hear. Give her permission to tell you the truth about what she eats, what she wants to eat, how much she exercises, how much she likes or dislikes exercise, etc.
- Give her guilt-free permission to be less than perfect.
- Real permission has no underlying implications about being “good.” It is not saying “It’s okay to eat an extra helping if you are really tempted” when you really mean that you would be extra proud of her if she resisted the temptation.
- When appropriate, let her try what she thinks she needs while holding a safety net for her in case it doesn’t work out. As long as it is not a risk to her health, letting a client run with an idea is often helpful. It is easier to give her alternatives and new ideas when a goal like “giving up sweets forever” falls short, than it is to convince her that it is not a good idea from the beginning.
- Give her alternatives and new ideas without saying or implying “I told you so” or making all of the good ideas seem like you thought of them.
- Empower the client to forgive setbacks. Without forgiveness she may continue or even escalate the undesirable behavior.
- Encourage forgiveness and minimize the negative effects of setbacks by fostering self-efficacy, focusing on any positive behaviors that did occur in the situation, and helping the client move forward with new strategies for the next time the situation arises.
- Keep in mind that both permission and forgiveness are very powerful when they come from you. A trainer’s feedback is often more powerful than the client’s own inner voice.
- Identify obstacles that typically trip up clients. When they can anticipate high-risk situations, clients can begin to discover effective strategies to overcome them.
- Learn to temper enthusiasm when things are going too well (“I lost 8 pounds this week!”) and build up enthusiasm when setbacks occur (“I haven’t exercised in 5 days.”).
- Help your client see that it is her reaction to her behavior and not the behavior itself that will determine the long-term consequences.
- Kosich, D., Get Real: A Personal Guide to Real-Life Weight Management. This book offers a common sense approach to managing weight through healthy eating and exercise. Order from the Pro Shop on www.ideafit.com of call IDEA member services at (800) 999-4332, ext. 7.
- Cohen, M.A. 1995. French Toast for Breakfast: Declaring Peace With Emotional Eating. Carlsbad, CA: Gurze Books.
- Prochaska, J.O., Norcross, J.C., DiClemente, C.C. 1994. Changing for Good: A Revolutionary Six-Stage Program for Overcoming Bad Habits and Moving Your Life Positively Forward. New York: Avon.
- Head, S., & Nilsen, S. 2003. Winning at Weight Loss: How to Achieve Life-Long Weight Management and Physical Fitness. (Available by contacting Susan Head, PhD, at email@example.com.
Greg Hottinger, MPH, RD, spent 3 years as a nutrition educator at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, and is the current nutritionist for the Duke University Center for Integrative Medicine. Greg is co-owner of NOVO Wellness LLC a company based in Asheville, North Carolina, that is dedicated to helping people live a healthier lifestyle.
Michael Scholtz, MA, is an exercise physiologist whose work experience includes 10 years at the Duke University Diet and Fitness Center, where he helped develop a curriculum aimed at increasing clients' motivation through self-awareness, increased self-esteem and a simple and functional approach to physical activity. Michael is co-owner of NOVO Wellness. Contact the authors at firstname.lastname@example.org, email@example.com or www.novowellness.com.less
Bandura, A. 1977. Self-efficacy: Toward a unifying theory of behavioral change. Psychological Review, 84 (2), 191-215.
Bandura, A. 1986. Social Foundations of Thought and Action: A Social Cognitive Theory. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.
Bray, G.A. 1998. Contemporary Diagnosis and Treatment of Obesity. Newtown, PA: Handbooks in Healthcare.
Prochaska, J.O., & DiClemente, C.C. 1992. Stages of change in the modification of problem behaviors. In M. Hersen, R.M. Eisler & P.M. Miller (Eds.), Progress in Behavior Modification. Sycamore, IL: Sycamore Press.
Prochaska, J.O., & DiClemente, C.C. 1982. Transtheoretical therapy toward a more integrative model of change. Psychotherapy: Theory, Research and Practice, 19 (3), 276-88.
© 2004 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.
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