As fitness professionals, we strive to become versed in multiple strategies, techniques and disciplines for the benefit of our clients. We work to motivate clients and train them appropriately. We provide them with the best education possible regarding fitness and wellness. In our own practices and in the short sessions we have with these individuals, we maintain ultimate control over delivery of our expertise.
Consider, however, the ultimate impact an hour or so of training per week might have in the big picture of our clients’ environments. They leave us (hopefully) motivated and happy with what they’ve accomplished. But they promptly return to their normal lives, lives which are unlikely to support what we try to promote. Clients conduct their lives within food and physical activity environments that are built, unfortunately, to unravel and undermine training successes. Clients are surrounded by conveniences that result in limiting all forms of physical activity. They see food advertisements everywhere they turn. They are confronted with food choices in restaurants, grocery stores and even at home with minimal guidance on what choices might be best. Most of them are asked to perform sedentary jobs for long hours every day, only to return home where relaxing entertainment is just a remote control away.
How can we, as fitness professionals and personal trainers, expand our influence beyond the short time we have to spend with clients each week? How can we help clients to restructure their personal environments to allow for maintenance of what we work so hard on in our time together? The answers lie in behavior change theories. Behavior change theories are conceptual frameworks, developed and honed by numerous research studies, that help to explain human behaviors and provide us leads on the most successful strategies to change those behaviors. In relation to health behaviors, these theories are still being developed. Even so, they currently provide useful ways of helping our clients cultivate healthier lifestyles. These theories suggest probing our clients for particular environmental barriers to daily physical activity or choosing healthful food options. They suggest ideas on how to facilitate healthy behaviors. They also allow for development of personalized, evidence-based solutions to help clients develop healthier personal environments when they are not with us. You likely have heard of many of these theories: the Transtheoretical Model, Social Cognitive Theory, the Theory of Planned Behaviors and the Health Belief Model. The list goes on, and all theories differ in their approach to explain behavior. What they all have in common, however, is their utility in structuring meaningful activities and educational strategies that lead to success in behavior change.
Consider, as an example, the popular goal of weight loss and maintenance. A recent review of literature suggested that in dealing with weight loss, components of various behavior change theories could be useful in structuring environments conducive to success. For example, the Theory of Planned Behavior was identified as holding the most promise in behavior change related to weight loss. Based on work by Ajzen and Fishbein, this theory suggests that people are more likely to perform a behavior when their attitude about the behavior is positive. They are also more likely to perform a behavior when they feel it is accepted or promoted by people around them (i.e., subjective norm). The theory also suggests the exploration of perceived behavioral control, including environmental factors the client believes either facilitate or inhibit a behavior. Taken together, attitude, subjective norm and perceived behavioral control all affect one’s intention to perform a behavior. As intention goes up, the likelihood that the behavior will be performed goes up. These concepts from the Theory of Planned Behavior can be utilized directly in helping a client shape his or her food and physical activity environments. In helping a client do so, you provide a greater opportunity for the client to maintain personal training successes and improvements throughout the week.
A client who is attempting some form of weight management could benefit from the application of this theory to his or her life. The client probably already strongly values (i.e., has a positive attitude about) the goal of weight loss, or he or she would not seek you out in the first place. But does a subjective norm exist, such that there are other important people in the client’s life who support the initiative? Does the client perceive control over the situation? Does he or she have access to equipment, a fitness center or a park to perform physical activity when not in the presence of the trainer? Does the client have access to useful recipes or food suggestions that seem acceptable substitutions for what is normally eaten? If barriers to behavior change exist, how can you, as a creative fitness professional, address them? If facilitating factors exist, how can you maximize their utility? Perhaps the client has a particular friend who is very supportive of his or her weight management efforts. Perhaps you co-train these individuals or develop suggestions within the client’s program that allow for partner training. Maybe you build in activities during the week that can be social in nature (i.e., walking or jogging). These sorts of activities would promote the subjective norm of consistent physical activity for the client. Further, you could develop a competitive incentive, suggesting the client use pedometers with that friend to see who can walk/run the most steps over the next week. This also establishes goal setting and attainment, another potentially useful strategy that could increase intention to perform healthy behaviors.
What if the client has a barrier to consuming healthier food options in a moderate way? You might find out what the client likes to cook or eat and then track down surrogate recipes that closely resemble those meals but use healthier ingredients (for example, www.eatingwell.com has a very large library of tasty recipes that are easy to make). Perhaps you provide suggestions for restaurants that provide healthier options, or you suggest strategies that allow the client more perceived control over his or her eating environment. As an example, clients can set limits to the amount of food or the number of drinks they plan to have at a social event prior to attending that event. Or clients can begin to make small changes that affect their lives only minimally (e.g., they can decide to order only non-fat lattes rather than regular lattes, or they decide only to offer diet sodas at gatherings they host). Making small changes enhances the likelihood of success, and mounting successes provide the client with a greater sense of control.
Applying the concepts of the Theory of Planned Behavior to clients’ lives could increase your clients’ intentions to perform healthy behaviors when not in your presence. As such, you provide your clients greater opportunity to extend the successes of their training sessions with you into the rest of their lives by working with their environments. I invite you to explore the Theory of Planned Behavior and other behavior change theories. Use of these theories means your practice is evidence based, and addressing your clients’ outside lives and environments with theory can only increase your success in helping them to achieve their goals.
- Baranowski, T., et al. Are current health behavioral change models helpful in guiding prevention of weight gain efforts? Obes Res. 2003;11:23S-43S.
- Fishbein M, Ajzen I. Belief, Attitude, Intention and Behavior: An Introduction to Theory and Research. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley; 1975.