“I am going to work out 6 days per week.”
“I am going to cut out an entire food group for 30 days.”
“I am going to lose 30 pounds in 2 months.”
“I am not going to eat sugar anymore.”

And the list goes on. Over the past 20 years of my fitness career, I have heard people make grand plans for themselves, only to be back where they started (or worse) a short time later. They are always preparing for that reunion or big event, and they need results fast. But they try to do too much, too hard, too fast. They try dramatic lifestyle overhauls instead of attempting small changes that they can practice every day.

Unfortunately, by 2030 more than half of Americans are expected to be obese. Of people who start an exercise program, 40%–65% will discontinue it within a year. And when your clients don’t see the results they believe they deserve, you lose credibility—and business.

Updating Client Mentality

As business owners and fitness professionals, we must be honest with our clients and help them understand that cabbage soup diets or insane workouts will not provide lasting change. If we truly want a different outcome for them, we need to change our strategy. So instead of seeing change as stressful, let’s create new connections in the brain by adapting gradually. We can do this through an approach called Kaizen.

Kaizen—which originated in Japan and translates as “change for the better”—focuses on continuous, incremental improvement. The philosophy was created for Japanese manufacturing processes, but it can be applied easily to the fitness and health industry. One of the most powerful precepts of Kaizen is that big results are achieved from many small changes over time.

Baby Steps

In my FIT4MOM business, I get to see thousands of babies. After birth, babies start off on their bellies. First, they work on developing upper-body strength, by pushing one arm out and then another, until finally they can lift their entire upper bodies off the ground. Their tummies soon follow, and before you know it, those little babies are crawling. They progress daily until they can walk—and eventually run. However, there is no “21 Days to Crawling” program. Their mobility results from small steps repeated day in and day out. Like compounding interest in a savings account, each step builds on the strength and learning of the previous days.

Compound interest is really another example of Kaizen. Let’s say you invest $50 per month into an account that pays compound interest. In 10 years, you will have invested $6,000, but due to compounding interest the account will be worth $7,760. And even if you don’t put in another dime after those first 10 years, in 15 years that same account will be worth $15,000. Why not apply the same principle to your clients’ fitness and health improvements?

Small Steps = Grand Rewards

Our goals for our clients must be focused on long-term success. The best way to achieve those objectives is to help build on manageable, successful steps.

Jeff Olson, author of The Slight Edge: Secret to a Successful Life (Momentum Media 2005), champions these principles. In his book he writes, “The small choices we make each day that seem insignificant are actually the key to living a life full of success, optimized health and happiness.” Achieving success is really quite easy. It’s about doing small and simple things continuously over time. The problem is that it’s just as easy not to do those simple things. Your clients became out of shape or overweight as a result of small choices that they made over time. Say, for example, that they chose to sleep in instead of getting up to work out, or they ate an extra bite of chocolate here and there. Those small choices built up to big results—almost without notice.

But in this case your clients don’t like the results. Olson says we are always on a success curve or a failure curve. The problem is that we don’t realize which curve we’re on until it’s too late. If you’d like your business to flourish, it’s time to get your clients on the success curve.

Here are ways you can apply some of Olson’s principles to your clients’ efforts:

  • Show up. “Eighty percent of success is just showing up.” —Woody Allen. Get your clients to realize the power of just showing up. Workouts don’t have to be perfect or long. Give credit for being there, so that people already feel they’ve achieved some success.
  • Be consistent. It may be boring, but it works. Find a healthy breakfast, and be consistent with it. Figure out a workout time that works, and be consistent with it. Most people will not stick with something that is difficult. Help your clients choose something they feel they can maintain, and find ways to support their decision.
  • Be committed for a long period of time. Don’t be afraid to tell your clients that they need a year to see lifetime transformational results. The compound effect (mentioned earlier with regard to financial interest) can happen only when people build on habits that they’re practicing repeatedly. It’s likely your clients already know what they’re supposed to do, but they don’t do it for long enough. Your job is to keep them on track!
  • Help your clients develop good habits. “Sow an act and reap a habit; sow a habit, reap a character; sow a character, and you reap a destiny” [precise attribution unknown]. People don’t automatically eat healthy foods or wake up early to exercise. They need to repeat some actions until they don’t have to think about it anymore. Work with your clients on building good habits one at a time, until those actions become routine.
  • No step is too small. Ask your clients to take a small step that is achievable and then build from there. If we put new clients through an overwhelming workout, they will feel that they’ve failed and they likely won’t be motivated to continue. Drops of water can build to a mighty ocean. A penny doubled each day turns into $5 million in 30 days. Approach your programming and goal setting with these ideas in mind.

Better Every Day

Can your clients increase their efforts by “a penny a day,” or by just 1%? That means holding a plank for one second longer, adding one more repetition to a push-up, running 1% faster, and the like.

This article started with some examples that don’t serve your clients well. Here are some new Kaizen thoughts to replace those earlier thoughts.

“I will work out for 10 minutes each day.”
“I will leave one bite at the end of each meal.”
“I will lose 1 pound each week.”
“I will have one less soda per day.”

The wisdom of small steps has been in existence for ages.

“Success is the sum of small efforts, repeated day in and day out.” Robert Collier
“Little by little, a little becomes a lot.” Tanzanian proverb
“Great things are done by a series of small things brought together.” Vincent Van Gogh
“A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.” Lao Tzu

Practice Makes Progress

It’s time to help our clients make real change—a lifetime of change—one small step at a time. Have them visualize the end of their path if they don’t make a change for the better. Even if they aren’t a little uncomfortable now, they would surely be very uncomfortable by the end of the failure curve. Most of our clients live with one foot in the past and one foot in the future. To ensure success for both you and your clients, help them to understand that lasting change is the result of small steps and minor changes practiced over time.

SIDEBAR: More Resources

Fogg, B.J. 2013. Fogg Method: 3 Steps to Changing Behavior. www.foggmethod.com/.
Maurer, R. 2014. One Small Step Can Change Your Life: The Kaizen Way.

Lisa Druxman, MA

Lisa Druxman, MA, is the owner and founder of Stroller StridesÔäó. She holds a masterÔÇÖs degree in exercise science and is a recognized presenter, writer and instructor. Certification: ACE

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