- The trainer will review some of the underlying brain mechanisms behind the complex associations your clients may make to exercise.
- The trainer will recognize how emotions and associations with previous exercise memories and experiences may help or hinder a client’s progress.
- This trainer will learn ways to help clients adhere to exercise as a routine way of life by creating positive associations to exercise, and avoiding or by decreasing the negative associations to exercise.
The beginning of a calendar year is viewed by many as an opportunity for new beginnings. It is the time of year when a host of people feel guilty post the festive excess and will vehemently make their New Year’s resolutions yet again. One of the typical annual promises is the vow to get healthier/slimmer/stronger with an exercise regimen.
Most fitness professionals understand that the majority of individuals taking up a new exercise or fitness program, whether starting to exercise for the first time or getting “back on track,” do not tend to stay committed for very long. The American Council on Exercise reports that 50 percent of novice exercisers drop out within the first six months, and that only 25 percent of Americans engage in the recommended levels of physical activity as it is.
However, this lack of exercise commitment and participation is not limited to the United States. This is a world issue and the figures for the rest of the population do not fair any better. In the UK, a survey published by the Health & Social Care Information Center (2012), reported that only 20% of respondents reported taking walks of at least 20 minutes, less than once each year or never. According to the World Health Organization (2012), globally, six percent of deaths are attributed to physical inactivity, making physical inactivity the fourth leading risk factor for world mortality rates.
As fitness professionals, you play a key role in helping to change the population’s views about exercise. In addition, you can play key roles in helping reduce the attrition rates of new exercisers, and in helping prevent the high percentage of exercisers from “falling off the wagon" or giving up on their exercise regimens.
"Motivation is what gets you started, habit is what keeps you going."
So, what is the best way for you as a fitness professional to succeed in these roles? There are too many methods to detail in one article. However, this article aims to help you understand some of the underlying brain mechanisms behind the complex associations your clients may make to exercise. The brief and simplified information provided in this article seeks to explain how emotions and associations with previous exercise memories and experiences may help or hinder a client’s progress. This article will suggest ways to help clients adhere to exercise as a routine way of life and offer ways in which the fitness professional can help clients overcome previous counterproductive associations, both contributing to your client’s likelihood of enjoying and developing a healthier relationship with exercise.
Before this article explores ways in which a fitness professional can help their client, it is important to have an understanding of how the human brain, your client’s brain, functions. This brief overview will reveal that the decisions made by so many to quit or never engage in exercise may be far deeper than most fitness professionals, and possibly clients, recognize.
Briefly How Our Brain Functions
The news from the neuroscientific community over the past few years reveals that the brain is exceptionally plastic and not a fixed, or static, organ as previously believed. Meaning, the brain, weighing 3/4 lbs and similar in consistency to tofu, is in a constant state of change and restructuring. This process of constant brain change is termed neuroplasticity and throughout life is accompanied by neurogenesis, or brain growth and development (Doidge, 2007).
Neuroplasticity allows the brain to continuously take account of the environment and events all around us. It also enables the brain to store the results of learning in the form of memories. This allows the brain to prepare for future events based on previous experiences. This is helpful as it means we learn quickly and don’t have to keep re-learning the same thing. On the other hand, some habit learning can be counterproductive for individuals and very difficult to overcome, as for example in addictions, eating disorders or obsessive compulsive disorder (Schore,1997; Amen, 2009).
‘Neurons that fire together wire together’
Whenever a person sleeps, walks, talks, observes, introspects, performs an exercise, or learns something new, neurons (cells) fire off in their brain and body. The more the person repeats the same activity, the more neurons fire. These neurons "speak" to each other via chemical messengers (called neurotransmitters/chemicals, or endorphins and peptides - along with hormones). These messengers then create neural pathways via synapses, similar to “road maps,” throughout our system and develop the brain’s patterns of thoughts, beliefs, behaviors, and modes of operating in the world.
Synapses and pathways (road maps), present throughout the brain and body, are firing off constantly in response to any thought, feeling, image, memory or association. Humans are a “chemical cellular cocktail” on legs and firing neuronally at all times while creating new or deeper connections/associations. The effect is known as experience-dependent plasticity (Schore,1997; Cozolino, 2003).
These new or deeper associations that are developing can be helpful or harmful to a client’s fitness success, depending on the individual’s memories or how the individual has interpreted the meaning at the time. Helpful and harmful associations will be discussed later in this article.
Clients may be “hot-wired” by their memories, their chemical conditioning, their beliefs about themselves, and their history of previous successes and/or failures. There is a chemical “association” in their system and the most important ingredient in the mix will be the feelings. Antonio Damasio discovered in an experiment, known as Descartes' Error, the key element for making daily decisions is strong emotional feelings. Damasio determined that an individual’s feelings are the deciding factor on whether to do something or not.
So, if individuals can be “hot-wired” by their memories, previous failures with exercise, etc., is this a factor in their decision to quit their exercise routine, or to never attempt an exercise routine? Also, if the key element for making decisions is strong emotional feelings, as Damasio claims, how can we help our clients develop emotional feelings towards staying, rather than quitting? A brief look into the “emotional center of the brain” may provide a better understanding of how our clients make these decisions.
Pain vs. Pleasure
Pleasure and pain are great re-enforcers of learning and behavior. Pain and pleasure, or punishment and reward, are actually registered within the brain’s hypothalamus, the said to be “emotional center of the brain.” The hypothalamus is a very important portion of the brain, although it is only about the size of a pea and weighs only a few grams. As the central focus of the limbic system, the hypothalamus integrates all systems and functions of the body which are not under our conscious control and plays a role in retaining homeostasis, the body’s normal level of functioning.
If the pleasure/pain pathway is so important, how can exercise adherence be looked at in terms of the neural associations made to it? How can an exercise professional help to change the clients “wiring” to exercise, to allow for the client to make associations to pleasure rather than pain?
The Pain We Need to Avoid
If the aim is to reduce the client's painful associations with the past, along with their painful projections of the future in terms of feelings around exercise/movement, the first solution might be to avoid these pathways and negative memories – focus on the solution for the client, not the problem (or negative memory).
For example, fitness professionals may question a client on the reasons they have failed at their exercise attempts in the past, or perhaps about the way they feel in their current state – overweight, tired, stressed, etc. These conversations may be detrimental to the client’s success by igniting their painful associations with exercise. Instead, the fitness professional should question the client on the goals they are seeking to achieve, to describe how they imagine they will feel when their goal is accomplished, and/or what they are proud of accomplishing to date. Another example of igniting painful associations may be when the client is questioned on the reason for not following through or completing a task that was agreed upon - such as a cardio workout, or keeping a food log. Rather than focusing on why the client didn't complete what they were committed to do, focus on what can be done in the future to help the client succeed in the task.
When the old neural pathways to the painful associations are no longer used, their strength starts to diminish due to lack of firing. In turn, the new pleasure pathways strengthen and begin to fire off more. The key is to engage in conversations and activities that make the client feel better, not worse, and that increase their self-esteem and self-efficacy. In time, their painful associations with exercise will decrease, as their pleasureable associations with exercise will increase.
The following will describe a few of the reasons clients may make painful associations to their exercise experience, whether they are conscious of the reason, or not.
Many people find it hard to come into a gym or training environment because they feel embarrassed about their size, weight, shape or level of fitness. They may assume everyone else will be slim, fit, and look like fitness models. They may even begin to feel worse as they get hot, red and sweaty. It is possible they may fear that others are looking at them and judging them. Any of these experiences may trigger painful memories from their previous experiences, which is putting them off even more.
- Suggestions: Greeting your client warmly the moment they arrive to work out with you, rather than leaving them standing around feeling isolated, will make a huge difference in making them feel comfortable and less self-conscious. When exercising, explain to your client that it is not uncommon to get hot, sweaty, or feel uncomfortable when exercising. Normalizing their feelings or the situation helps. In fact, extremes of heat and cold get registered in the hypothalamus as painful, so avoid pushing them too hard until they adjust to exercise over time.
2. Fear of looking stupid
This fear is enhanced when the client is working with new equipment or an exercise that is difficult to learn, performing an exercise that places them in an awkward position, or in an exercise class where everyone else seems to know exactly what they are doing. It can be too daunting for some people to ask for help or admit they feel uncomfortable, so they remain silent or feel isolated, then quietly leave or never return.
- Suggestions: Be conscious of your client's comfort level as they are exercising, and only select exercises and exercise positions that you feel are in their comfort zone. If you notice that they are struggling or looking perplexed, assist and help them to feel less inadequate. Giving your client an option for another exercise or selecting a different machine (resistance or cardio) that will accomplish the same goal is recommended, if needed. Avoid recommending classes for your client that may be too advanced for them at the time. Progressing the machines, exercises, and classes in their fitness program can be a goal for them once they gain the confidence and are ready.
3. Belief they will fail
A newcomer can feel inadequate, especially if they are surrounded by others who have been exercising for years and appear confident in what they are doing. They may also have tried many attempts at exercising previously, only to give up. This may have diminished their faith in their ability to succeed and increase their chances of quitting again.
- Suggestions: Encouragement is key. Focusing each workout on the accomplishments they have made, no matter how small, may help them overcome their fear of failure. These consistent celebrations of accomplishment will enhance the postive associations to their exercise experience and help to overcome the painful associations with exercise failure. When setting goals, focusing on body image, shape and size initially may hurt your client rather than help them. Rarely do these parameters change immediately, or quick enough to satisfy the client. Attempt to set goals for cardiovascular improvements, strength, and stress reduction. These are goals that are achieved sooner than weightloss for a new exerciser and will bring a sense of accomplishment and success.
4. Previous memories of exercise from childhood
Many of your clients, adults and/or children, may have negative childhood memories of exercise, whether they were teased, were not good at a sport, etc.
- Suggestions: Try to implement a form of exercise or movement that does not trigger a negative memory. Your client may not inform you of the poor experiences they had in the past, however, inquiring about what activities they enjoy the most or giving them options to choose from will help avoid putting the client in a negative situation. An exercise such as running may be associated with poor experiences they have had in the past, whereas the rowing machine or a yoga class may not have the same connotations for them.
5. Having problems with co-ordination
Some clients hold the belief that they are simply incapable of doing physical activity and not good at controlling their body, or have impaired proprioception. Others, may be confident in their coordination, until they are placed in the very uncomfortable environment of not being able to maintain their balance or control throughout an exercise. Exercises involving various balancing devices, such as BOSU balls, or even single leg exercises, may bring about a very unpleasant and negative experience for the client.
- Suggestions: Regardless of the client's fitness level, starting slowly with less complex exercises, until the client demonstrates control and comfort in completing the basic exercises, will help to avoid these uncomfortable situations. Explaining muscle memory and neuro-adaptation, as well as normalizing the challenges they may be experiencing will help.
6. Unrealistic expectations and delayed gratification
Endorphins from exercise and the chemical releases associated with it do not start immediately when one begins exercising. Neither does significant weight loss or a noticeable change in musculature, body fat or cardiovascular fitness. Many clients expect there to be immediate gains from day one, so how you manage their expectations is crucial to their long-term commitment of a program.
- Suggestions: Set small, short-term goals with your client that are realistic and are measured frequently enough to give a sense of gratification. Setting goals that are likely to show quick improvements (repetitions and resistance, cardiovascular fitness, etc.) will make it more likely that the client will stay positive in their exercise regimen when witnessing their success. Accomplishing the short-term goals will provide frequent gratification to the client and keep them motivated as they move closer to accomplishing their long-term goal.
The Pleasure We Need to Enhance
There are neural pathways you want to “fire off” and build more of, particularly in associations with exercise. Every thought, memory, image or sensation has a chemical response. How can we make the client's neural networks encode exercise in a pleasurable way?
1. Rewards and gains, the value of exercise
An individual's perceived value of a particular outcome depends on the type of outcome, its magnitude and its probability of achievement. Therefore, in order for a client to perceive exercise as valuable, the goal (outcome) should be significant enough to the client, and they must have a belief that they can achieve the goal. Rewards, or results, that the client will only experience in the long-term are subjectively valued less. Therefore, making exercise rewarding in the short-term helps with engagement and follow through in terms of longer term behavior change. When the client experiences something rewarding and pleasurable in the moment, chances are their brain will opt for that behavior until it becomes a habit.
- Suggestions: Discuss setting a goal with your client that is significantly valuable to them, not a goal someone else told them they needed to achieve. The specifics of the goal should be determined based on what the client believes they can accomplish, rather than what we know is physically possible for that client. Lastly, set short-term goals, based on the long-term goal, with rewards/celebration for each short-term goal accomplishment. Over time, this will contribute to helping change client behavior.
2. Self efficacy – Ability to do it
The primary psychological factor associated with exercise adherence is a person’s physical self-efficacy (Trost et al., 2002). Self-efficacy is a person’s confidence in her/his ability to do exercise and remain consistent with workouts. If someone believes they can do it, then they will, and if they don’t, they won’t. Therefore, clients need to feel like they have the ability to follow the program, can understand it, and believe they can be good at it! The influence of the exercise professional in empowering clients that they can ‘succeed with exercise’ is vitally important to exercise compliance.
- Suggestions: It is essential to design exercise programs that allow the client to feel successful. Aim to start off slowly, then increase with aptitude and ability. If the routine is too difficult, or the client wifeels like they cannot manage exercise, they may quit.
3. Relationship with you the Trainer
Whatley and Schrider note that positive feedback and knowledgeable guidance from an exercise professional, within a supportive atmosphere, is also consequential to exercise compliance. With proficiency of exercise, people develop confidence that they can reach new, more specific and challenging goals, and thus will set these new goals into action plans. Relationships are also very important to people. How well you get along with your clients, and if they like you or not, will be a key decider of their relationship status with you. A client can usually sense when you are genuinely interested and empathic, and when you are not.
- Suggestions: Positive feedback can be delivered by commenting on the exercises the clients are completing correctly, and encouraging the client when they are experiencing challenges. Building a good relationship with your client includes trust and rapport. Be certain to deliver what you promise your client, when you promise it, and attempt to make the workout as fun for them as possible. During the workout, include a few questions about positive experiences that week or month, rather than bringing up previous problems, or focusing on issues at work etc. Lastly, every trainer has challenges and struggles that make some days difficult to exude enthusiasm and positivity. Leave your negative feelings or attitude out of your client's workout, and focus solely on giving your client an experience that will allow them to make the most positive associations with you.
4. Social networks
Socializing and introducing clients to other exercisers is a great contributor to your client's success. Social support in general is critical, and numerous studies demonstrate that social support from a significant other is highly associated with exercise adherence (Trost et al., 2002). If your client does not have a strong support system at home, but can be part of a social group in an exercise setting, this increases their chances of remaining a long-standing exerciser. Group exercise settings are a great opportunity for clients to build a positive social network.
- Suggestions: Introduce your client to as many other clients, exercisers, or staff members as possible. The more connections your client makes, the greater support system they feel they have. If possible, get your client involved in partner training, group training, or a group exercise class at least 1/week to help them establish these social networks.
5. Music and atmosphere – Environment
The environment where you train your clients is very important. How they feel when entering the building/area and what reception they receive (or don’t) is vital to how they form a negative or positive opinion. Friendliness and cleanliness go a long way in helping create an atmosphere where clients feel comfortable and welcome. Music selection can play a crucial part of the client's enjoyment, or lack thereof, throughout their training session as well.
- Suggestions: Greet as many clients, and other exercisers, as possible as you or they enter the building/area. Encourage other staff members to do the same. During your down time, or in between training sessions, take the time to tidy up the environment, whether you are racking weights, wiping down machines, or picking up trash. This will give others the impression that you care about their environment. When selecting music for the training area, or a class, select music that is most likely to motivate or please the client, not what you prefer.
6. Handouts, visual representations of progress and information
Most clients enjoy receiving materials or hand-outs, whether it is informative or educational. Providing the client with visual representations of progression-like pictures, graphs, or images works well when communicating information to those who process information more visually. Newsletters or interesting articles on a topic that interest them, or is relevant to their goal, is another positive association they will make to their workout.
The majority of new exercisers will quit before they ever have the opportunity to succeed in reaching their goals or in enjoying exercise. As a result, they may join the majority of the population who has failed to adopt fitness and activity as a way of life. Based on what we can learn from some of the information in Neuroscience, your client’s associations to Pain or Pleasure during their exercise experience may play a great role in their decision to stay or quit. With an awareness of how the brain plays a role in exercise adherence and the triggers that may influence what associations are painful or pleasureable, fitness professionals can help their increase the chances of the client's success and long-term committment to exercise. Avoiding/reducing the possibility of your client experiencing negative associations, and enhancing the pleasureable associations they make to exercise, will aid in “wiring” your client’s brain to view exercise as rewarding and increase the chances they will adopt a healthy, active lifestyle, as well as continue with you as a client.
- Amen, D. (2009). Change your Brain, Change your Life. London, Piatkus UK.
- Doidge, N. (2007). The Brain That Changes Itself: Stories of Personal Triumph from the frontiers of brain science. New York: Viking.
- Health & Social Care Information Centre. (2012). The Statistics on Obesity, Physical Activity and Diet Survey. England.
- Cozolino, L. (2006). The Neuroscience of Human Relationships, Attachment and the Developing Brain, London, W.W. Norton & Company.
- Schore, A. N. (1994). Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, The Neurobiology of Emotional Development, Hove, Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishers.
- Trost, S.G., Owen, N., Bauman, A.E., Sallis, J.F. and Brown, W. (2002). Correlates of adults’ participation in physical activity: review and update. Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise, 34(12), 1996-2001.
- Whaley, D.E. and Schrider, A.F. (2005). The process of adult exercise adherence: Self- perceptions and competence. The Sport Psychologist, 19, 148-163.
- Wilson, K. and Brookfield, D. (2009). Effect of goal setting on motivation and adherence in a six-week exercise program. International Journal of Sport and Exercise Physiology, 6, 89-100.
- World Health Organization (WHO). (2012). 10 Facts on physical activity. Retrieved December 28, 2012, from http://www.who.int/features/factfiles/physical_activity/facts/en/index.html