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Training Happy for Positive Behavioral Change

To keep clients’ New Year’s motivation going strong all year, scientists have a surprising suggestion: don’t focus on getting them to exercise harder. Help them exercise happier. Here’s why—and how.

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Training for happiness

Are happiness exercises part of your training program design? Does that question seem odd?

As you embark on a new year of helping clients work toward their fitness resolutions, this is the perfect time to pause and consider how you can use every tool at your disposal to make sure people succeed. Your toolbox includes harnessing the power of positivity to promote physical activity.

Though scientists have yet to confirm a direct causal link between happiness and health, growing research shows a relationship between psychological well-being and multiple positive health outcomes: Among these are a stronger immune system, fewer chronic-pain conditions, less likelihood of diabetes, lower risk of fatal accident, reduced heart-disease risk and longer life (Archer 2018). What’s more, studies show that happier people engage in a greater number of healthy lifestyle behaviors—including physical activity (Steptoe 2019). Research also shows that specific practices, such as keeping a gratitude journal, can actually enhance happiness levels. This raises the question of whether a boost in happiness may increase a person’s healthy behaviors, such as sticking with a training program or eating more nutritious foods.

“First, it’s important to fully recognize that fitness professionals cannot, do not, boost a client’s happiness. Only the client can do that, if the client has an open mind and receptive heart to do so,” says Michael R. Mantell, PhD, San Diego–based cognitive behavior coach, author and chief science officer of Plus Size Certified. “Fitness professionals may help clients . . . learn methods to boost happiness and develop tactics and plans to build this feeling . . . but this means assuring that . . . a training session focuses on emotional well-being as well [as physical training].”

Supporting clients in achieving both mental well-being and physical goals within a training session requires intention and conscious awareness. This article breaks down the up-to-date scientific findings to help you understand tools and techniques you can use with clients, as well as pitfalls to avoid—all in the pursuit of happiness.

Happiness and Exercise: A Symbiotic Relationship

Relationship between exercise and happiness

Psychological well-being is associated with higher physical activity levels.

Significant evidence confirms a positive nexus between physical activity and mental health. Studies in positive psychology (also referred to as “happiness science”) show that happiness, or what scientists call “psychological well-being,” is associated with a longer, higher-quality life. Happier people lead healthier lifestyles and are more likely to be fit, to eat well and to be popular. “This is what we call ‘a positive feedback loop’ or ‘the upward spiral of happiness’—when more positive emotions predispose us to take more positive actions, which then leads to greater happiness and well-being,” says Jacalyn Brecher, MBA, a certified positive psychology practitioner and national board-certified health and wellness coach in New York City. The research on this exercise-and-happiness connection merits a closer look.

Happier people are more active. When Harvard University researchers analyzed data from almost 10,000 male and female adults assessed at six points over 11 years, they found that psychological well-being was independently associated with reaching and maintaining higher physical activity levels for the duration of the study. Study authors concluded that interventions targeting psychological well-being might be a way to increase physical activity in addition to enhancing psychological health (Kim et al. 2017).

In another study, this time of 1,000-plus patients with coronary heart disease, investigators evaluated the association of positive affect (a positive mood state) with health behaviors over 5 years. Data analysis revealed a link between greater psychological well-being and behaviors like being active, sleeping better and not smoking. Moreover, increases in positive affect occurred together with improvements in physical activity, sleep quality and medication adherence (Sin, Moskowitz & Whooley 2015).

Activities that boost happiness also increase physical activity levels. In a 2012 study of 242 patients who had undergone coronary catheterization procedures, those who participated in patient education and in “positivity” practices—like reminders to think about proud life moments and to enjoy positive thoughts—were 1.7 times more likely to achieve physical activity goals than those who did not. The positivity group also experienced improvement in depressive symptoms (Peterson et al. 2012).

Increasing exercise can increase happiness. Exercise can play a key role in alleviating anxiety and depression—so much so that it can be a valuable therapy for those with clinical conditions. (This is explained in depth in “Train Yourself Happy” at ideafit.com/fitness-library/train-yourself-happy.) However, the context of the physical activity matters. In a meta-analysis of almost 100 studies that included a combined sample size of 648,726, researchers found that leisure-time activity and active transportation were positively associated with mental health benefits, but work-related physical activity was not (White et al. 2017).

Given the power of this and other evidence, leading researchers are suggesting that activities that increase happiness may be a way to boost people’s participation in physical activity and to improve their health overall. This presents an opportunity for you, as a fitness professional. Integrating positivity practices into training sessions can enhance happiness, increase participation and attract new clients who want to join in the joy. But, before you can create a center where people can tap into the upward spiral of happiness, you need to be grounded in the concept of emotional well-being and the techniques to create it.

See also: Harness the Power of Positive Psychology

How Experts Define Happiness

Defining happiness for training

Happiness in life includes life satisfaction, optimism, positive feelings and purpose.

If someone says, “Define happiness scientifically,” you may not know how to answer. But if someone asks you, “Do you generally feel content and happy with your life and positive about the future?” you have an immediate gut reaction. This is how to begin understanding the scientific definition of happiness or psychological well-being.

Researchers debate the details but, in general, the concept of psychological well-being encompasses more than happy emotions and pleasurable sensations. Happiness in life includes life satisfaction, optimism, positive feelings and purpose. For example:

Daniel Kahneman, a Nobel Prize–winning psychologist and behavioral economist, offers four levels of analysis for identifying, measuring and evaluating happiness: emotions (feelings that are experiential and “in the moment”), sensations (physical feelings and the memories of them), personality traits (a person’s innate response to life events) and well-being (general feelings about happiness and life overall) (Kahneman, Diener & Schwartz 1999).

Sonja Lyubomirsky, PhD, positive psychology researcher at the University of California, Riverside, and author of The How of Happiness (Penguin 2008), defines happiness as “the experience of joy, contentment or positive well-being, combined with a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile.”

Martin Seligman, PhD, the father of positive psychology, set forth one of the leading theoretical perspectives in the field—the PERMA theory, where PERMA is an acronym for Positive emotion, Engagement, Relationships, Meaning and Accomplishment. He defines well-being as one’s ability to “flourish” through meaningful life pursuits, supportive social relationships and a sense of mastery (Seligman 2011). It is this final example that we will use later to discuss how to incorporate more happiness into fitness programming.

Three Primary Factors That Influence Happiness

Many people mistakenly think that external factors like wealth significantly affect happiness, but numerous studies show that once basic needs (e.g., food, shelter, safety) are consistently met, more material goods do not increase happiness (Lyubomirsky, Sheldon & Schkade 2005). Another “myth of happiness” is that happy people do not experience negative emotions, loss or life disappointments—or that positivity requires denial. This is incorrect. What studies reveal is that “happy people” possess the positive feelings, thought processes and strategies that enable them to function well in life and to evaluate life favorably, regardless of what comes their way (Kim et al. 2017).

In fact, happiness is within reach for all of us, since it is strongly influenced by our own efforts. Studies show that three primary factors contribute to happiness:

Genetics determine 50% of our basic temperament and disposition. Examples of personality traits that increase happiness include cheerfulness, enthusiasm, gratitude, hopefulness, optimism and a sense of humor.

Circumstances influence 10%. Examples are life events, life status (being single, married, divorced or widowed) and material well-being (including wealth).

Efforts make up 40%. These include what we do (day-to-day behaviors), what we think (optimistic or grateful inner dialogue), and what we seek (personal goals and/or dedication to meaningful causes).

While genetics cannot be altered, circumstances and everyday efforts are adaptable—and, as the numbers show, that’s half the battle.

First Things First: Nixing Negativity to Model Positivity

Modeling positivity in the training room

Fit pros are in a unique position to model positivity and self-compassion for clients.

“Instructors and fitness coaches carry a lot of responsibility for the ‘mood’ of a workout,” says Grace DeSimone, national director of group fitness for Optum On-site services in the New York metropolitan area. “It’s all about noticing how your actions, dialogue and instructions impact the expressions of the participants.” Studies substantiate this perception that what a fitness professional says can influence how people feel—either positively or negatively. To be sure you are accentuating the positive with clients, it is vital to eliminate the negative, starting with self-deprecating inner dialogue. “Fitness professionals are in a unique position to model for clients the transformative power of self-compassion, inspiring others not only through professional skills and achievements but also through willingness to embrace self-acceptance in lieu of the pursuit of physical perfectionism,” says Brecher.

Start With Yourself

“Like all ‘helping professionals,’ fitness pros have a responsibility to do their own personal work,” says Brecher. “That doesn’t mean you have to have everything healed, but you need to be able to honestly acknowledge what [your] issues are so they don’t blindside you or your clients and so you can begin the personal healing process.” Brecher recommends seeking support from a mentor, peers or even a somatically informed body-oriented counselor to address personal issues around body image or perfectionism. (Somatic Experiencing® is a type of “body psychotherapy” treatment often used to help people improve their self-image.)

Show Unconditional Support for Clients

Mindfully addressing their own body-image issues can make it easier for fitness professionals to acknowledge judgment (and not be diminished by it), to truly hear what their clients are saying, and to offer unconditional support. This unconditional support can be powerful, adds Brecher. “Demonstrating your unconditional positive regard for clients—regardless of body shape, regimen compliance or fitness outcome—might do more for their ultimate happiness and well-being than anything that could happen on a piece of exercise equipment,” she says.

Avoid Being Accidentally Negative

For Rachael Babiracki, a Les Mills US head trainer based in Colorado Springs, this means carefully considering how any motivational messages are delivered. “Often, going to the gym is tied to some sort of body shame, and this is something that has real negative mental health risks, decreases happiness and can negatively affect exercise adherence,” she says.

Studies confirm this: Adults who experience weight stigma are more likely to avoid exercise, and the stigma itself contributes to stress, anxiety and negative mood (Puhl & Heuer 2010). Babiracki says, “If we, as an industry, can shift the narrative to one of inclusivity and empowerment—away from body shame and ‘fixing’ bodies, toward celebrating what our bodies can do—more people will be drawn to exercise and fitness and want it to be part of their lives.” (See “Check Your Script: Are You Cuing for Positivity?,” page 27, for more specific guidance on what to say, or not.)

See also: Turn Negatives Into Positives

How to Exercise Positivity in the Training Room

Positivity in the training room

Trainers can implement practices to encourage engagement and build relationships in the training room.

In addition to avoiding negativity, fitness pros can tap into the wealth of research on known ways to help people increase positive well-being throughout the fitness experience. Here are some creative ways to support your clients, based on the PERMA principles, which Seligman drew from years of research.

Draw Attention to “Positive Emotions”

Happier people experience positive emotions more frequently—ideally, multiple times daily. Instructors can use techniques to draw attention to positive feelings like happiness, excitement, joy, enthusiasm, love, pleasure and contentment.

Start and end with self-awareness. Claudia Micco, owner of HypnoFit Maui LLC and a master trainer for YogaFit® Asia Pacific in Maui, Hawaii, recommends beginning every session with a visualization, encouraging people to connect their heart, body and mind. DeSimone encourages doing pre- and post-session checks of mood, energy, thoughts and creativity.

Encourage participants to “fuel up” on good energy during the workout and “save it” for when they need energy refills, says DeSimone. This is a great way to get clients both to savor a workout later and to make the conscious connection between training and feeling great.

Watch for negative body language and self-talk and find ways to reframe perceptions in a way that clients can connect with positive feelings, suggests Mantell.

Encourage “Engagement” in the Present Moment

The experience of happiness occurs in the present, but, 50% of the time, people’s minds are wandering, according to Harvard researchers who conducted a study of over 2,200 individuals. Research shows that people are happier when they’re focused on what they’re doing, even if it’s an activity they don’t enjoy (Killingsworth & Gilbert 2010). Fitness professionals can help people cultivate present-moment awareness in a variety of ways.

Draw attention to the senses: touch, sight, smell, hearing and taste. For example, cue people to feel strength and power in their muscles, to hear energy in the music, and to observe their surroundings. Outdoor workouts can boost engagement by offering the sensory stimulation of nature.

Provide clear and positive feedback and encourage a personal sense of control with comments like “Great effort on those last three reps!” or “Excellent form engaging those glutes on those squats,” instead of generic comments like “Way to go!” suggests Mantell.

Notice what exercises or activities take your clients into a “flow” state, where they’re fully engaged and not checking the clock. Michael Piercy, MS, IDEA’s 2017 IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year and owner of The LAB in New Jersey, recommends switching up exercises or trying new pieces of equipment to make sure boredom doesn’t creep into training. “People are always excited when they try something new,” he says.

Build “Relationships” With and Between People

Social support and positive relationships are important to good health and well-being and are associated with many health benefits (Park et al. 2014). Instructors can learn and use participants’ names, introduce people to each other, and build community and support. “Happy people belong,” says DeSimone. “Invite, thank and be welcoming in all of your communications. Happiness is contagious.” Some specific ideas:

Introduce clients to facility staff, other members and potential training partners.

Ask clients what kind of support they have at home, and educate them about the importance of support from family, friends and colleagues.

Organize wellness socials or happy hours to help members get to know each other outside the training room. Members already share a common interest in fitness and health improvement. You can also offer workshops that combine education and socializing.

Focus on the Deeper “Meaning” of Fitness

Mounting research shows that people who have a sense of meaning in their lives tend to live longer and enjoy better health (Alimujiang et al. 2019). And this meaning needs to be “intrinsic” (based on inner desires), rather than “extrinsic” (a reaction to external pressures). When you’re with clients, you can support their sense of meaning by asking why they are training. At first, people may respond with typical comments about “looking better,” “getting stronger” or “being healthier,” but goals like these are often means to another end. For example, do some clients want to be healthier because they’d like to enjoy a long life with their partner or grandkids?

Keeping in mind that focusing on appearance may ultimately be demotivating, how does a fitness pro get to the underlying reasons why clients want to change how they look? These strategies can help:

Use pointed questions to identify intrinsic goals. Babiracki suggests asking, “What sort of impact do you want exercise to have on your life?” to give people space to focus on the joys that exercise can bring. Another option is to ask, “How do you expect or want your life to be different when you accomplish your fitness goal?” Answers to the latter might include having more energy, feeling like one’s former self again, or waking up without aches and pains.

Connect the “why” to each workout. Mantell notes that once you know a client’s why, you can then ask in a postworkout check-in whether the workout matched the why. This helps support a shift to a growth mindset, in which the client sees potential in training, rather than simply viewing it as a chore.

Tap into people’s desire to help others. You can do this by offering special training events to benefit others who are less fortunate, such as a “Turkey Day” workout and food drive or a charity ride to benefit breast cancer. Whatever the cause, it can help people get together, socialize and train in the service of others, while also appreciating their own good fortune—a win-win-win-win!

Acknowledge Clients’ “Accomplishments” More Often

Studies show that a sense of mastery and accomplishment boosts self-efficacy, or one’s belief in one’s own power to effect change. Each training session, as well as every move, is an accomplishment—highlight this!

Present options for every move instead of being overly directive. Let participants choose what level and intensity are appropriate so that every participant can do every exercise.

Remind participants of their accomplishments. Congratulate people for coming to train, for completing a session and for giving what they can on any given day.

Track progress with exercise logs or digital devices, suggests Mantell. This will reinforce the achievement of consistently showing up.

Check Your Script: Are You Cuing for Positivity?

Experts agree that what a fitness professional says can influence how people feel—either positively or negatively. Case in point: Northwestern University researchers conducted a study with 203 college-aged women who participated in a class led by an instructor who cued with comments that were either appearance-focused or function-focused.

After the session, the women in the function-focused group reported feeling happier and experiencing better body satisfaction than those in the appearance-focused group. “Just modifying the [fitness instructor’s] script had a meaningful impact on the way people felt about themselves afterward,” says Renee Engeln, PhD, a psychology professor at Northwestern and the study’s lead author.

Here are examples of wording used in the cues for this study.

Cues to train for happiness

More Ways to Infuse Fitness With Joy, Laughter and Fun

While research has validated the positive effects of PERMA factors, numerous studies also confirm the power of gratitude, even something as simple as writing a list of things you appreciate, to increase happiness and well-being (Emmons & McCollough 2003). Fit pros can foster gratitude—as well as joy, laughter and fun—in a variety of ways.

Cue for thankfulness during each exercise. For example, cue people to feel and appreciate the strength in their legs or arms during moves like squats or pushups. Desimone says, “Take the focus off calories and sleek physiques. Find joy in the sheer ability of motion.”

Weave gratitude throughout the workout. Micco uses an exercise that she calls the “Internal Shower.” During “aware breathing” in the warmup, she has participants think of a couple of things that the heart does. Ideas that emerge might include “circulates oxygen” or “feels love.” During rest breaks, Micco reminds people to feel their heart beating, perhaps even placing a hand on the heart. She suggests they say to themselves, or out loud, “My circulation is fantastic” or “I love this feeling.” Then, during the cooldown, she reminds participants once again to notice their heart beating slowly and easily, and she suggests they thank it for all of its abilities.

Encourage laughter, fun and lightness. Piercy recommends building free play into training sessions, where people can choose what moves they want to do, or to play games like dodge-ball so clients can have fun with movement. He emphasizes that he creates an environment of choice with team-oriented challenges. Teammates cheer each other; the “competition” is about winning at individual goals and challenges, not about beating each other. Research shows that laughter not only boosts positive feelings and enhances relationships, but it can also release “feel good” endorphins (Savage et al. 2017).

Use music to motivate emotions. Music can affect mood and heart rate (Vuilleumier & Trost 2015). Used skillfully, it can energize a workout and bring calm and relaxation at the end. “Use music your clients like,” says Micco. “Music can create joyful feelings during a session. [Making] happy memories while exercising is great for adherence and extends the mind-body experience into [people’s] daily life.”

See also: The Power of a Positive Brand

Picture This: How to Put Positivity on Display in the Studio

Taking what we know from “happiness science,” it’s fun to reimagine a positivity training studio. The following are ideas from an expert brainstorm.

  • A welcoming concierge. Have front-desk staff greet each member with positive, gratitude-themed remarks, such as, “Thanks for coming in! Isn’t it great to be able to take care of ourselves by working out?”
  • Inclusive messaging. Make every person feel that he or she belongs by intentionally showing diversity (body type, age, gender, ethnicity) in marketing materials. Educate staff on how to use supportive language for people of all body types and ability levels.
  • A “Member of the Month” or “Victory” wall. Celebrate members for consistently showing up.
  • An “Employee of the Month” wall. Profile a diverse staff, sharing personal quirks and interests to increase relatability.
  • Motivational wall art. Include messages that focus on all of the benefits of training: mental, physical, emotional and spiritual.
  • An indoor “nature studio.” Have a room with a skylight, a soft sand floor and nature-sound features to create a virtual outdoor experience.

Fit Pros: Catalysts for Health and Happiness

Leading fitness professionals can now apply proven training methods to achieve effective physical results and integrate positivity practices (into both the training and the environment) to optimize feelings of well-being. The combined power of these tools can significantly increase chances that people will stick with training, and this same power can create an environment that  magnetizes others who want to get in on the benefits. Fitness professionals have a powerful opportunity to influence people’s health and happiness. Fire up your passion for well-being and watch the sparks of happiness fly.


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Shirley Archer-Eichenberger, JD, MA

Shirley Archer, JD, MA, is an internationally acknowledged integrative health and mindfulness specialist, best-selling author of 16 fitness and wellness books translated into multiple languages and sold worldwide, award-winning health journalist, contributing editor to Fitness Journal, media spokesperson, and IDEA's 2008 Fitness Instructor of the Year. She's a 25-year industry veteran and former health and fitness educator at the Stanford Prevention Research Center, who has served on multiple industry committees and co-authored trade books and manuals for ACE, ACSM and YMCA of the USA. She has appeared on TV worldwide and was a featured trainer on America's Next Top Model.

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