It’s a busy, technology-dominated world—and most of us are continually spinning, twisting and turning in an effort to “get things done” and “produce.” We work, we raise families, we have countless responsibilities. The truth is, this is distracted living, and it raises stress levels, lowers productivity, interferes with our ability to focus and compromises the mind-body connection. When we live this way, we fail to cultivate a sense of contentment and joy, which is counterproductive to our work as fitness and wellness professionals.
The Psychology of Behavior Change
Working with clients is as much psychological as it is physiological. Yes, as exercise professionals we need to collect and monitor specific metrics to evaluate client progress. Well-established programming principles and parameters inform the science behind the workout programs we tailor to our clients. However, making the scientific aspects of program design and execution the only or even primary focus is a short-sighted approach. As fitness and wellness professionals, we are remiss in our mission if we neglect to view programming through a holistic lens. Along with heeding sound scientific principles of program design, this means understanding, respecting and addressing the psychology of behavior change.
An effective program is defined not solely by its ability to aid a client in achieving a predetermined goal (strength, hypertrophy, general fitness/stamina, etc.). A successful program considers important psychological factors and is enjoyable. When clients enjoy the experience of exercise and movement, they look forward to subsequent training sessions. You, as the professional, promote an enriching experience, while your clients develop a greater sense of appreciation for their well-being and overall quality of life. It’s a win-win.
To be effective and help clients establish sustainable and meaningful behavior and lifestyle changes, you must incorporate teachable take-home skills (stress management, mindfulness practices, etc.) that can be applied daily outside of the scheduled sessions with you.
The positive and healthy changes clients make are not solidified during individual training. While those sessions focus on physical work and allow for teachable moments, the psychological work takes place at other times. To foster a comprehensive client experience that is both enjoyable and rewarding, you must also teach clients (and make it a practice yourself) to live mindfully rather than with a full mind.
(Note: While this column chiefly addresses fitness and wellness professionals who work one-on-one with clients, group instructors may want to suggest some of the mindfulness techniques to class participants, as well.)
Promoting Balance Between Physical and Psychological Strength
How can you integrate holistic opportunities for skill development beyond your training sessions? For example, if a client meets with you three times each week, what will she do on “nontraining days”? You will likely recommend some type of physical activity to complement the work performed in the session. Such activity might include a flexibility regimen, core training, light cardio, active rest or some other unsupervised form of movement. This is an excellent way to help the client reach her fitness goals.
But what about achieving balance— lifestyle balance—that includes proper and consistent stress management and mindfulness practices thoughtfully designed to strengthen the client’s mind-body connection? Establishing and then re- inforcing this connection allows the client to become centered, confident and capable of maintaining the healthy lifestyle practices she is developing, without being derailed by the inevitable daily distractions or upsets. (For a more complete list of the benefits of mindfulness, see the sidebar “Health and Wellness Benefits of Mindfulness Practices.”)
Incorporating “psychological wellness” training into a physical fitness program will help your clients stay on track and better manage threats or relapses down the road. Integrating mindfulness activities in sessions and as part of clients’ “take-home” skill development efforts is a way to do this.
Incorporating Mindfulness Practices Into Your Client Sessions
The concept of mindfulness gained mainstream popularity and respect when John Kabat-Zinn established the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MSBR) program through the University of Massachusetts Medical Center. His definition of mindfulness as “present-moment, nonjudgmental awareness of one’s physical and psychological experience” (Brehm 2014, pp. 203–204)” has become familiar to many. In other words, mindfulness is related to a mental state in which the focus is on the present moment and the peaceful acceptance of all facets of an experience or event. When we are mindful, we are aware of our own bodily sensations, emotions, feelings and thoughts.
How you elect to integrate mind- fulness practices and efforts will vary from client to client. Not every person will respond to the same tool or technique, and you will need to be sensitive to a client’s personality type to find the best approach. For example, if you have a high-stress, type A client who always appears to be in a rush, you might consider starting each session with a mindfulness activity aimed at turning attention toward the session and away from the stresses of the day. This could take the form of focused breathing exercises connected to a dynamic stretching routine (breathe in for 5 counts, out for 5, etc.).
Another effective technique for quieting a busy mind is to have the client practice a refocusing and centering exercise. For example, asking a client to look around the room and select objects he can see, hear, touch and smell is helpful for making a connection between the environment and the primary senses.
You can also elevate a client’s awareness by encouraging cognitive restructuring, the process of consciously modifying one’s perceptions or thoughts (ACE 2013). We’ve all had a client who perceives exercise as a negative activity or a “thing to get done.” You can ask a client like this to journal thoughts about specific occurrences or tasks and then work with him to reframe those thoughts in a positive way. Over time, clients can retrain their minds to avoid creating counterproductive thoughts.
Part of helping clients find a peaceful life balance is giving them a sense of ownership. To do this, assign homework lessons they can complete on nontraining days, and include a reflection on the lessons, with guiding questions:
- How did you feel before X?
- How did you feel after X?
- What benefits of X do you perceive?
- How can you regularly incorporate X into your life? How will you monitor this?
For instance, you might assign a client three mindful breathing exercises each week and ask her to check in with you via email (or other method of communication) about her progress and pitfalls. This not only gives the client a sense of completion and ownership, but it provides you an opportunity to foster mindful living habits.
For more mindful techniques you can suggest as homework or include in sessions, see the sidebar “Mindfulness Techniques: Suggestions for Your Clients.”
Think It Through: The Overburdened Working Mom
Let’s take a hypothetical case study as an opportunity for you to practice. Debbie is one of your personal training clients. She is a working mother of three young children, and her husband travels frequently for business. Each time she enters a training session, she comments that it’s her “therapy,” meaning her time to reduce stress. Although Debbie has made gains (lost weight, improved nutritional practices and built strength) with your guidance, she has yet to find ways to effectively manage the daily chaos. She reports feeling overburdened and “short” with people she comes in contact with on a day-to-day basis.
How would you approach Debbie’s challenge, and what techniques would you implement? Which self-monitoring efforts would you suggest she try?
Think it through, and then see the end of this article for some recommendations.
Mindfulness practices are not about learning to enjoy every moment in every day. Let’s be honest: We are humans, and this is a lofty goal for even the most practiced individuals. Mindfulness is simply about elevating our level of awareness and connectivity to daily life. It’s a way to live life without just “going through the motions” of life.
As you find ways to incorporate these practices into your clients’ programs, you will invariably create an environment of success—an environment that encourages clients to confidently overcome challenges in their daily lives and remain steadfast in the pursuit of their current and future lifestyle goals, physical and beyond. Each client you meet and train is on a journey. Your role as a fitness or wellness professional isn’t just to train the physical dimensions; your job, overall, is to educate and influence in such a way that every client who seeks your services becomes a competent, capable and confident traveler.
ACE (American Council on Exercise). 2013. ACE Health Coach Manual. San Diego: ACE.
Brehm, B.A. 2014. The Psychology of Health and Fitness: Applications for Behavior Change Philadelphia: F.A. Davis.
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