Behavior modification can be a tricky thing when it’s just you and your client working through challenging issues. But what happens when others are proving to be obstacles to progress? IDEA asked a handful of fitness professionals how they assist or advise clients whose friends and family may be sabotaging their efforts to get healthy.

Reframe Tempting Activities

I try to prepare clients for this occurrence. I have seen this situation more often with “friends” who feel threatened by the success of someone in their circle. When the resistance comes from a partner, it is a very difficult situation, but social interactions can be altered more easily.

I often ask clients about their social habits and suggest, for example, that “girls’ night out” could be replaced by a fun activity that does not revolve around eating. Discussing strategies with clients in preparation for events like that is often helpful. Workplace temptations (such as the candy jar on the colleague’s desk) can be anticipated as well.

It also helps to suggest to clients that the newly acquired healthy behavior does not need to be broadcast in a proselytizing manner, thus inviting a backlash.

Karin Singleton,
Owner, Fitness Personified Ltd.
Raleigh, North Carolina

Compromise and Plan

When I work with clients, the fear of sabotage by others is a concern. Clients want to be part of the fun and part of the crowd. They don’t want to be the person who has to eat a salad and drink water while friends are eating wings and drinking beer. I know clients are going to go out with friends, so we talk about compromise. Yes, they can have wings; we pick a number. Yes, they can have beer; we pick an amount. Planning is critical in these situations. It allows clients to be part of the group, not feel deprived, stick with their plan and ultimately reach their goals.

Linda S. Jassmond
Owner, Linda S. Jassmond LLC
West Grove, Pennsylvania

Own the Behavior Modification ‘Why’

Social support is great, but you have to boost clients’ intrinsic motivation—uncover their personal impetus for their fitness goal(s), and tie it to their emotionally driven desire to achieve them. Ask clients to identify their goals and to answer the question “Why do you want to achieve this behavior modification?”

Some clients are caregivers for their parents or for their own young children, and for those clients their world revolves around taking care of others. Help them understand [the importance of self-care]: “If you don’t take care of yourself, you can’t care for anyone else.” If you have flown on a commercial airline, you know that if the air masks pop down during the flight, you put your mask on first and then you put the mask on your child or travel partner who might need help.

Advise clients to find support in other life arenas: at work (request walk-and-talk meetings when possible), at school (take a brisk walk around campus between classes) or at the gym. One of the most powerful things you can do in a gym environment is to “connect” clients with other gym members. Build community!

At one time I was a fitness club director and was recruited away by a new venture. Six years later, my old club went under after a slow and steady decline and years of neglect: worn and torn carpets, stinky locker rooms and staffing cutbacks. I ran into a former member and when I asked her why she had stayed to the bitter end, she said, “My friends were there.” A member-based fitness facility is a living organism—an ecosystem, if you will—and when you connect the dots between members, you build a powerful community within it. You give members a powerful reason for staying and, for most of them, a powerful intrinsic motivator to stick with their program.

Neal Pire, MA, FACSM
Health and Wellness Coach, Castle Connolly Private Health Partners
New York

Buddy Up!

I encourage my personal training clients to integrate partners and co-workers into their training. For example, instead of going out for breakfast once a week, my client and his wife play tennis that morning instead. Another client asked her husband to watch their kids for an hour a week while she trained with me. He agreed reluctantly at first but is now happy that he gets to have breakfast with the little ones. It’s a win-win for all involved. Clients just need the strength and behavior modification plan to go for their goals and maybe to work with a trainer who nudges them a bit.

Heike Yates
CEO, Heike Yates Fitness
Silver Spring, Maryland

Advocate and Encourage Change

Support from family and friends during behavior modification is an important predictor of success with physical activity and healthy eating habits. It can be very difficult for clients to develop and maintain healthy lifestyle modifications without a support system. Unfortunately, undermining and sabotage can be common themes in many households. However, when clients are in the action stage and ready to make behavior changes, you can help.

You can be an advocate for your clients to develop healthy habits by encouraging them to alter some things in their home environment. One motivational strategy is to ask clients to prepare their environment ahead of time to help trigger healthy eating or exercise. Examples include keeping a gym bag ready by the door, making a healthy food grocery list, preparing meals in advance and engaging in a group exercise class to meet others who are supportive.

Try to associate a client with other groups of people who have similar interests and goals for healthy lifestyles. It can be challenging for the client, but it can be done.

Christine Hales
Personal Trainer, Start Moving Fitness LLC
Solon, Ohio

Inform and Prepare

This is a topic I discuss during my consultation with new clients. There are always some sabotaging family members or friends when a person is trying to make self-improvements via behavior modification. I give my clients the heads-up early, and that in itself helps the most. Clients are surprised when their sister, mother or even best friend works to undermine them. I had one client whose best friend shoved a piece of chocolate in the client’s mouth! Officemates are sometimes the worst. Some clients tell me they would go to work only to find a cupcake on their desk every morning, when everyone knew they were on a healthy eating plan.

How to handle this? Tell clients to realize that friends may be comfortable with them as they were but not with this new version. Change makes people nervous and self-conscious. My first line of defense is to give clients words to keep people at bay. For example, when someone tries to feed them sabotaging foods like cupcakes or chocolate, clients can say, “That food looks far better on you than on me!” That always scares people away.

My second line of defense is to remind clients that their new healthy life involves effort. They need some “cheat” meals that aren’t really cheat meals. They can look for healthy, delicious desserts or healthy pizza. Go to and search for fantastic examples or to to order protein cookies! Clients can bring these foods to the office for themselves or to share with others. Then they will have something to nibble on while others are consuming unhealthy food. Clients will be surprised when people start following these examples.

I let my clients know that as they work toward their goals, people might say, “You’ve changed.” They might lose some friends along the way. My clients are always surprised and disappointed when people shun healthy new beginnings. On the flip side, fitness brings in new friends. I encourage clients to surround themselves with like-minded people!

Being healthy involves a lot of change, but it is exciting, positive change. I tell my clients, “I didn’t say the journey would be easy, but I do promise it will be worth it.”

Colleen Holiday
Owner, You.Only.Stronger

Undermining and sabotage are common and frustrating in the behavior modification process. One of my clients is struggling to lose weight and get healthier. Her loving partner buys her candy and sabotages her eating by suggesting they eat out at fast-food places. What they choose to eat is very unhealthy. I have tried to point out this behavior to my client, but she defends her partner. My client has worked on strategies to combat this—such as stating that candy is not on her diabetic diet or suggesting a healthier restaurant—but she has not been very successful. I did try to talk to the partner, but she was defensive and said she just wanted to give her partner a treat for working so hard.

When I start with a new client, I usually ask about support people and about possible roadblocks to fitness goals in the hope that we can avoid something like this happening.

Janet Weller RN
Owner, Weller Bodies Personal Training
Closter, New Jersey

See also: The Secrets to Behavior Change: Principles and Practice

If you have a question, send it to IDEA Fitness Journal for consideration: ([email protected]); Include name, company, city, state/province and phone number.

Updated August 10, 2021.