Almost everyone you talk to these days is concerned with their health and wants to look and feel better, so why are obesity rates skyrocketing among both children and adults? Despite our best efforts, the fitness community has not been able to inspire the sedentary masses to embrace a healthier lifestyle.

The problem is not so much that people don’t want to work out. It’s more that they are daunted by the serious challenge of actually starting and maintaining an exercise program. Now, more than ever, we need to know how to keep our clients motivated so they can overcome obstacles and reap the health benefits of a lifelong exercise regimen. Fortunately, there is a growing body of psychological research that we can draw on to develop effective strategies to foster motivation in our clients.

Understanding Motivation

Many fitness professionals are familiar with the terms intrinsic and extrinsic motivation. As the term implies, intrinsic motivation comes from within; it is internally derived without a specific environmental source. In practical terms, intrinsic motivation causes people to engage in an activity, such as exercise, for the sheer sense of pleasure or satisfaction they get from the activity itself. Extrinsic motivation, on the other hand, is derived from direct environmental input or is socially mediated in some way. For example, people may be extrinsically motivated to exercise by the praise and support they get from family members or a physician.

Many people start a new behavior, such as an exercise program or new diet, for extrinsic reasons, such as wanting to look better. However, a program undertaken solely to improve one’s appearance is not likely to be sustained in the long run. It is doomed to fail because extrinsic motivation is usually insufficient to get people over the hurdles of being too busy or tired to make it to the gym every day.

The key to long-term (and even short-term) success lies in developing multiple sources of motivation. Our job as fitness professionals is to help clients who begin exercising for one reason to develop and strengthen other motivators so they have more reasons to continue their programs.

Assessing Motivation

The Motivation for Physical Activity Measure, developed by Frederick & Ryan (1993), is a 30-item, self-reported questionnaire designed to assess motives for participation in sport, exercise and physical activity. Questionnaire users assess the reasons they participate in different activities by rating factors that fall under the following five areas of motivation:

  • appearance
  • social
  • fitness
  • competence
  • interest/enjoyment

Fitness professionals can use the responses to this questionnaire to identify clients’ primary personal motivators to exercise. For example, an appearance motivator might be to improve body shape or gain muscle tone. A social motivator would be to meet new people in a group fitness class. To increase physical strength would be a fitness motivator. A competence motivator might be to learn or improve a specific skill. Finally, to engage in physical activity simply because it’s fun would be an interest/enjoyment motivator. (For a look at the questionnaire, see “The Motivation for Physical Activity Measure” on page 31.)

Some behavior experts consider appearance to be extrinsic in nature, and competence and interest/enjoyment to be intrinsic (Frederick et al. 1997). However, each of the five areas of motivation may, to some degree, be both intrinsically and extrinsically derived. For example, it is conceivable that appearance could be an intrinsic source for some people and that competence or fitness could have some extrinsic elements. It is also likely that the degree to which any one motivator is both intrinsic and extrinsic in nature will vary for each individual.

According to the questionnaire’s creators, clients who give high ratings to competence and interest/enjoyment motivators are more likely to participate and stick with an exercise program (Frederick & Ryan 1993). Additionally, these researchers propose that the success of any exercise program depends on developing multiple sources of motivation.

That’s why it is essential that fitness professionals help clients cultivate multiple areas of motivation, both extrinsic and intrinsic. One way we can do that is to use these five motivators as tools to analyze which categories are strongest and weakest for a particular client. The ultimate goal is to strengthen all areas of motivation for physical activity. We can accomplish this by using the specific practical strategies outlined under each of the sections that follow.

Using the APPEARANCE Motivator

Many people are motivated to exercise at least in part because they want to improve their appearance. Although this may not be the best reason to exercise, it isn’t a harmful motive as long as it is not the sole reason and is balanced with other sources of motivation. And although appearance is usually not a motivator that we need to bolster in our clients, we can take the following steps to help them alter their role models:

Change the Images Clients Compare Themselves With. Encourage a wider range of acceptable body types and healthy shapes. Suggest that clients look to female athletes—instead of swimsuit models—as their role models.

Eliminate All “Beauty” Images From Your Fitness Facility. Replace fashion magazines and “beefcake” posters in your lobby and dressing rooms with photos of strong, athletic and interesting-looking people (this applies to images of women and men!).

Be Cautious With Your Motivational Language and Cues. Emphasize fitness and competence (“Look at how many more sit-ups you are able to do now”) instead of appearance (“Your stomach is so much flatter now”).

Add to Your Clients’ Motivators. Educate clients about the other benefits of physical activity, such as improved health and increased enjoyment. (“It’s fine that you want to lose weight, but this exercise regimen will also enable you to enjoy your next hike with your family.”) Find activities that are interesting and give clients a sense of accomplishment.

Using the SOCIAL Motivator

Anyone who has ever worked out with a partner or played on a softball team knows the value of social motivation. Even when you are not feeling up to it, you’ll show up for the game so that you don’t let the team down, or you’ll honor a commitment to meet a friend at the gym at an appointed hour. We are also socially motivated when we are in a setting that fosters camaraderie—for example, a favorite group fitness class. Even people who say they don’t go to the gym to socialize end up benefiting indirectly from being in the company of others.

Although personal fitness trainers typically provide one-on-one contact and feedback for their clients, group instructors can also offer their participants a form of social support. Here are some ways you can strengthen your clients’ social motivation:

Find Opportunities to Learn About Your Clients’ Lives and What’s Important to Them. Ask questions about their children’s soccer games, their upcoming vacations and other daily activities. The answers can shed light on your clients’ priorities and help you establish a personal connection that participants will value. (However, be sure to set some boundaries on the types of personal questions you pose; your club’s management may have established standards as to what it considers unacceptable.)

Use Touch As Often As Possible. A squeeze on the arm, a pat on the back or a handshake can go a long way in establishing rapport with certain people. However, since some clients are averse to being touched, be sensitive and professional when using this technique. Before physically manipulating or correcting a client, always ask for permission and then state your reason for using touch (e.g., “I am going to place my finger on your scapula so you can feel this back contraction better.”).

Foster a Fitness Environment That Is Friendly, Open and Comfortable. Whether you are teaching a class of 30 or training one client, try to create an environment that encourages people to talk to each other. Make introductions to staff and other participants as often as you can.

Greet Each Client in Some Way. Make the extra effort to learn as many names as you can; this simple gesture can be amazingly meaningful to people. Be sure every person who enters your facility is met with a friendly smile and direct eye contact (even if you can’t remember the person’s name). Make sure that when clients come in, your front-desk staff stop whatever they’re doing, look up, smile and say “hello.”

Work With Management to Create an Inviting Social Atmosphere. Suggest that a sign-up sheet be prominently placed on the wall for racquetball teams, walking/running partners or workout buddies. Provide a place for members to post their favorite healthy recipes and business cards. Hold events that give members a chance to get acquainted so they can build bridges between club activities and people important to their lives.

Using the FITNESS Motivator

More and more, consumers know that engaging in physically activity can help lower dangerously high blood pressure levels, reduce stress and ward off diseases. At the same time, a growing number of “weekend warriors” and elite athletes are embarking on exercise regimens to improve sports performance or enhance their competitive chances. All of these reasons for exercising can be grouped under the fitness category. Although serious athletes usually need little encouragement to exercise regularly, fitness professionals can reach out to clients who are motivated to improve their health and well-being. This group of clients represents a huge opportunity for fitness professionals to let people know how good exercise is for them and how it can enhance their lives.

Keep Up With Current Health and Fitness Findings. It is hard to answer clients’ questions if you don’t stay educated about important research studies. Staying abreast of all the latest scientific findings can be a challenge, so create a personal system that works for you. For example, make it a regular practice to read a research column, such as the one in IDEA Health & Fitness Source or IDEA Personal Trainer magazine, and cut out one or two studies that you can share with clients.

Provide Clients With Articles That Support the Benefits of Regular Exercise. Use materials supplied by industry magazines. For example, the Client Handout at the end of IDEA Health & Fitness Source is intended for this purpose.

Let Clients Know How They Are Progressing. You can do this either by using objective testing measures, such as strength and flexibility tests, or by subjectively noting improvements in certain areas. People love to see how much they have improved their running time or increased the weight they can lift. Positive results go a long way toward keeping clients motivated.

Educate Clients on the Benefits of Strength Training. Do the same with cardio and flexibility training. Be sure to include some tips just for fun. (“Not only does exercise decrease your likelihood of developing colon cancer—it may also improve your sex life!”)

Using the COMPETENCE Motivator

People like to be good at what they do. Feeling skilled or accomplished is an important human need. Conversely, people tend to avoid activities in which they lack confidence; this is especially true for new exercisers. Experienced exercisers get a rush from their accomplishments; they are also likely to try new things as a result of their past success in meeting their fitness goals. Because novice exercisers have no history of accomplishments to draw on, it is essential to create a fitness environment that is comfortable and accessible to them. Here are some ways you can do that:

Recommend Activities That People Can Develop Some Competence In Quickly. It is critical that new exercisers feel somewhat competent in a class or program by the end of their first week. Without some sense of accomplishment, the chances of their coming back a second week decrease. So take advantage of this initial window of time by exposing them to simple activities and explaining the specific actions they should attempt. For example, recommend two classes that you think would interest them, based on their experience and personal goals, or suggest that they perform a certain number of reps on five specific weight machines. Accomplishing these customized personal goals can create a sense of intrinsic value and help sustain motivation.

Care for New People, and Show That You Do! Walking into a new place and beginning an unfamiliar program can be very intimidating for new clients. It is your job to cushion their doubts and insecurities and foster confidence! Don’t look at new people as annoyances that slow your class down. In fact, novices may become your biggest fans if you take the time to help them make a successful transition to a regular exercise regimen.

Verbally Compliment Clients and Point Out Areas of Improvement. Ask them to track their own changes, as well. Use language such as, “Do you feel stronger now?” or “Look how much better your balance is!” By showing clients that you value small changes, they will start to notice these on their own and they’ll be hooked! (This technique also strengthens the social and fitness motivators.)

Create a User-Friendly Environment. Make it as easy as possible for clients to learn a program on the weight floor or in a group fitness class. By helping people learn the basics quickly and easily, you allow them to feel a degree of comfort right away. For some new people, a group setting is the optimal choice since they respond best when an instructor guides them through every step of the workout; most of these people will see an improvement by their third class as the moves become more familiar. However, other clients may find the group environment intimidating. For these people, you may want to design a class for novices or offer group personal training sessions; if so, make sure you feature moves and exercises that can be learned quickly and easily. Another option is to direct these folks to the weight circuit room so they can exercise alone, where they may feel more comfortable.

Using the INTEREST/ENJOYMENT Motivator

The turn of the 21st century brought with it some wonderful innovations in exercise. Now we can “ride” bikes indoors, learn fitness-based martial arts moves, dance to an ethnic beat and try out a mind-body format like yoga all under the same roof! Clients have got some great choices now, and multiple options are a key factor in any successful fitness program. In addition to offering physiological benefits, cross training may be equally valuable from a psychological perspective. The exercise process can be much more enjoyable when it isn’t the same old thing over and over again!

Upping the enjoyment level in a physical activity program may seem like common sense. Nevertheless, if fitness professionals don’t continue to be as creative as possible, we risk losing the interest of a great many clients. It takes some effort to discover individual interests, learn new things and “mix it up,” but the return on investment can propel our clients to develop a lifelong habit of activity. Pull out all the stops in this area by using the following strategies:

Cater to Individuality. Take 2 minutes to ask about each client’s exercise history and his or her likes and dislikes. Perhaps one person has an interest in dance or has always wanted to try kickboxing. Maybe someone else really wants to train for an upcoming run. Pay attention, and make recommendations accordingly.

Continue to Grow as an Instructor. Learn how to teach new classes and use new equipment. Tap into your personal creativity. Try something different in class tomorrow. You can do it!

Smile and Exude Positive Energy! Remember that many people want to draw on your energy, knowledge and positive attitude. If you don’t act as though exercising was the most fun thing you could possibly be doing, why should your clients?

Keep Experimenting With Innovative Classes at Your Fitness Facility. If necessary, hire new staff to keep program offerings up-to-date. Find instructors who can teach interesting skills, such as rock climbing or snowboarding. Stay abreast of consumer trends so you know what is coming down the pike.

Organize “Extracurricular” Activities for Club Members. Consider a group hike or volleyball tournament. Decide on an activity that your club is well suited to offer. Call on volunteers to organize the details.

Keep in Mind That Enjoyment Is an Intangible Feeling. We often like something but are unable to explain exactly why. By incorporating the previous four motivators into your sessions and classes, you will ultimately create an enjoyable experience for your clients, one that keeps them coming back for more.

Multiplying the Motivators

It would be difficult to overemphasize the importance of developing multiple areas of motivation in your clients! With four or five strong motivators backing the habit of exercise, a person is likely to develop a successful behavior pattern that will endure. When clients look beyond appearance and value their exercise program because it creates social opportunities, contributes to their health, allows them to feel confident and is enjoyable, we will have done our job!