Fitness, Personal Training, & Exercise Science

9 Behavior Change Strategies for Exercise & Health

The results of a recent poll showed that over fourth-fifths of Americans (82 percent) had goals related to improving their appearance and overall well-being.

As a health coach or personal trainer, you know that it takes a lot of time and effort for people who have health, fitness, or wellness goals to achieve them. It’s not enough for them to just meet with you a couple of times per week for training or coaching, though. You also need to use the right behavior change strategies to help them stay motivated and make lasting changes to their lifestyle.

Are you concerned about the effectiveness of your approach to behavior modification? Are you looking for new ways to help your clients achieve their goals? If so, keep reading. Listed below are nine incredible behavior change strategies for exercise health coaches and personal trainers can start using today.


Stages of Behavior Modification

Behavior modification is all about stopping specific, unwanted behaviors and replacing them with more desirable ones. 

There are lots of different frameworks that people use when talking about behavior modification. In the world of health coaching and personal training, though, one of the most frequently referenced models is known as the Transtheoretical Model of Health Behavior Change.

This model breaks down behavior change into the following five stages:

  • Pre-contemplation: During this stage, a person is not even thinking about making any changes to their lifestyle.
  • Contemplation: At this point, they begin to think about the importance of healthy living and might be considering making some changes.
  • Preparation: During the preparation stage, the person starts taking steps toward developing a new habit; they might go for walks on occasion, for example, or start buying more vegetables at the store, but these behaviors aren’t consistent.
  • Action: This stage involves consistent action with regards to a specific behavior, but the person will have maintained that consistency for less than six months.
  • Maintenance: At this point, a person has maintained a particular behavior for at least six months. 

Most of the time, when health coaches or personal trainers meet with clients, they’re in the contemplation or preparation stages. Regardless of a person’s current stage, though, the ultimate goal is to help them get to a place of maintenance.

Once a client has maintained a behavior for at least six months, they might still require some occasional support and guidance, but they’ll also be more confident in their ability to keep things up. At this point, they might also decide that they’re ready to start pursuing a new goal.

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9 Best Behavior Modification Tricks

No matter what stage of behavior modification your clients are currently in, there are plenty of behavior change strategies that can help them build healthy habits, reach their specific goals, and enter the coveted maintenance stage. The following are some of the most effective ones to consider:

1. Habit Stacking

The practice of habit stacking, made popular by the author and entrepreneur James Clear, is one of the most effective tools health coaches and personal trainers can teach their clients. Habit stacking involves “stacking” a new behavior on top of an existing one. 

This pairing approach works due to something known as “synaptic pruning.” The idea behind synaptic pruning is that the brain prunes away connections (or synapses) between neurons that aren’t used very often. It also builds up the connections that get used most often. 

By creating and strengthening specific connections between behaviors, you can help your clients make lasting habit changes in their lives. 

An example of habit stacking for your client might look like them doing five push-ups every time they pour themselves a cup of coffee in the morning. They already have a habit of pouring coffee, and now they’re creating a new habit by “stacking” push-ups on top of it.  

2. Set a Timer

When helping clients to establish new and healthy behaviors, sometimes, the simplest approaches are the ones that are the most effective. For example, having them set timers on their watch or phone to go off at regular intervals can be very powerful. 

If your client needs help drinking more water, consider having them set an alarm that goes off once every couple of hours and reminds them to drink a glass or two of water. That way, they won’t have to worry about creating space in their brains to remember to drink. Their phone or watch will do it for them.

3. Set Intentions, Not Tasks

Some clients thrive when given a specific list of to-dos that they need to check off each day. For other clients, though, this can seem oppressive or cause them to feel overwhelmed. If the checklist approach doesn’t work for your client, consider having them set intentions instead.

Setting intentions is all about helping clients get clear on their “why.” Talk to them about why they want to accomplish a specific health or fitness goal and find out what’s driving them. Don’t focus only on want they want, but help them figure out how they want to feel as well. 

After clarifying and setting intentions, your client will have something to return to when things get difficult or when they’re considering not following through on their habit. This can keep them motivated as they work to develop the discipline needed to enter the maintenance stage.

4. Identify and Eliminate Distractions

Many clients struggle with certain distractions that hold them back from achieving their goals and engaging in healthy behaviors. They might be pulled in by the lure of social media sites and spend so much time scrolling that they miss their workout window or the day. 

If your client has distractions like this that are a consistent problem, work with them to identify the issue and then find a way to get rid of it. Maybe they need to utilize an app that blocks them from accessing a particular website. That way, they won’t be tempted to scroll and will be more inclined to fit in their workout.

5. Focus on One Goal at a Time

It’s not uncommon for clients to come to a trainer or health coach with multiple goals. Maybe they want to lose a certain amount of weight while also getting stronger and having more stamina. When they have too many goals that they’re trying to achieve at once, it can be easy for clients to become overwhelmed and end up not accomplishing any of them. 

To help increase your client’s chances of success, encourage them to focus on just one goal at a time. This allows them to dedicate more time and energy to accomplish it and ups their likelihood of establishing a healthy, sustainable habit. Help them decide which goal matters most to them and hone in on that one. 

6. Share Your Knowledge

In some cases, clients struggle to stick with particular habits because they aren’t sure why they’re doing them. For these clients, it’s not enough to just want to change. They need to know why they should want to change.

Remember that some people are the most motivated by facts and information. Appeals to emotion might not work for these clients, but factual information and data can do the trick. If your client is struggling to exercise on a regular basis, consider sharing some of the research showing the benefits of exercise. 

Try talking to them about how it’s been proven to relieve feelings of depression or promote better sleep. Armed with the data surrounding exercise, your clients might feel a renewed sense of motivation and will be encouraged to continue with their healthy behavior change until it becomes a lasting habit. 

7. Create Accountability

Hiring you as a health coach or personal trainer will already provide your client with a certain amount of accountability. Some people need additional measures to create a sense of obligation and help them keep their eyes on the prize, though. 

If you find that your client is someone who responds well to outside expectations, look for ways to create those for them. Maybe they’re required to text you after every workout, for example, and tell you how it went. Or, perhaps you should send them a text by a certain time each day to see if they’ve done their workout. 

In either case, knowing that you’ll be checking in on them or waiting for their check-in can be a great motivational tool that helps clients strengthen the connections needed to form lasting habits.

8. Make It Social

Some clients have an easier time making lasting behavioral changes when there’s a social element to the habit they’re trying to establish. 

Your client might not stick to an exercise routine because they don’t enjoy or don’t feel comfortable working out alone, for instance. In this case, encouraging them to try a group exercise class or small-group personal training session might be what they need to make the behavior or regular exercise stick. 

If they get to spend time with people they like while also working out, they might be more inclined to continue doing it.

9. Reward Small Victories

Don’t forget about the importance of celebrating small victories. Six months is a long time to keep up a behavior. Clients are going to be more apt to do this if the behavior change is broken up into smaller goals, each of which has some kind of reward attached to it.

When a client has exercised consistently for a month, maybe you can do a shout out on your social media profile or feature them in your client newsletter. After two or three months, maybe they can earn a discounted training or coaching session. 

Whatever reward modality you choose, be sure to look for ways to recognize their wins and acknowledge how special they are. 

Try These Behavior Modification Tricks Today

If you want your clients to experience long-lasting results, you need to use the right behavior modification strategies. Luckily, as you can see, there are lots of strategies available to you. 

Keep this list in mind as you prepare for your next health coaching or personal training session to give you some inspiration on the best approaches to use to help them reach their goals. If you need more advice on providing guidance to your clients and keeping them motivated, consider AFPA’s Certified Master Health and Wellness Coach Program, our most comprehensive health coaching program designed to help you become a great coach.

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