PT on the Net Research

Stop Telling Your Clients to Reduce Stress and Start Showing Them How

This article includes studies about the evolution of the study of stress, science-based techniques for choosing a positive stress response, and coaching strategies trainers can use during and between sessions to add value, increase compliance, and improve the health of their clients.

Learning Objectives:

  1. Identify how stress affects health.
  2. Define stress mindsets and their role in health behaviors.
  3. Develop coaching strategies to use with clients to positively influence stress and health outcomes.

Stress is no joke. It has been directly tied to over 80 diseases. A landmark study has shown, however, that it is our perception that stress negatively affects health coupled with high amounts of stress that has the most impact on premature death (Keller et al., 2012).

Said more simply, stress is not your problem. How you think about stress is your problem.

Rethinking Stress

There are two predominant mindsets surrounding stress: stress-is-enhancing mindset and stress-is-debilitating mindset. In The Upside of Stress: Why Stress Is Good for You, and How to Get Good at It, author Kelly McGonigal (2015) presented these and the uplifting potential that we can change our stress mindset and ultimately our health. As a personal trainer, you are in a unique position to both identify and impact the current mindset of your clients.

Mindsets predict goals and beliefs about effort, and ultimately outcomes (Crum et al., 2013). We see mindsets at work all day; for example, listen to how clients talk about their stressors and consider the following statements. One more strongly indicates a stress-is-enhancing mindset and the other a stress-is-debilitating mindset.

  1. “I feel a good workout coming on. Let’s do this.”
  2. “I sit too much. My job is going to kill me.”

An individual’s stress mindset is directly related to health outcomes including deciding to continue to work with you. People who believe stress is a part of life have a “bring it on” attitude and think that stress enhances resilience and makes them better. They are those most likely to seek healthy behaviors and therefore be healthier in the future.

In her TED Talk, McGonigal (2013) admitted the traditional approach to stress, that even she as a health psychologist used, has not served us. The eliminate-stress-because-stress-will-kill-you mantra may do more harm than good.

After all, you’re going to confront stress. Consider how your stress mindset has already evolved. As a personal trainer for instance, early in your career you may have had a lot of uncertainty about making a sale or attracting new clients. Now, with more experience, you know there will be prospects you’ll sell and prospects you won’t sell. You know some nerves before a proposal is natural.

If you have a stress-is-enhancing mindset, then you will be more likely to achieve an optimal level of arousal under stress, defined as having enough arousal to meet goals and demands but not so much as to compromise action toward those ends or to debilitate physiological health in the long run.

These simple examples of what has been true for you also illustrates how you can help your clients become aware of their current mindset to create a stronger stress-is-enhancing mindset. Look for the following coping mechanisms clients use that also hint at stress mindset.

Coping Mechanisms

Your clients’ mindset influences how they cope with stress. People with a balancing or more welcoming approach to stress look for proactive ways to deal with it, one of which may be seeking you.

Avoidance Coping

Some people default to avoidance coping under stress. These are likely your clients that frequently cancel. That appointment with you is just too much. They have too much to do, too many obligations, they’re overwhelmed and something has to go.

Approach Coping

Approach coping includes reframing. You can help a client see the value in stress and the positive effect it can have on propelling progress.

This is different that saying exercise helps to decrease stress, which is a common approach. You, in fact, probably mitigate your stress with a workout. For newer clients who’ve not yet made the connection with exercise as a stress reliever (it may still be a stressor if a client feels it’s intimidating) it’s premature to suggest exercise will help.

Introduce your clients to the concept that stress can be a positive part of life, not necessarily something to be avoided. As they adapt they will be more likely to show up no matter what else is going on.

Social Coping

Social coping includes seeking support. If clients find you are a source of support, not for solving their life problems, but for understanding how they are responding and how they can change that response, you add value to their personal training experience. This approach stays within your scope of practice without crossing personal boundaries or providing advice about the actual situation.

Distractive Coping

Distractive coping can involve exercise, or humor, or a change of scenery. A personal training session can be a perfect fit for a client who knows they’ll feel better after a workout.

Interventions That Create Stress Resilience

When you share information with clients on the positive effects of stress and interventions that buffer stress, you can influence their mindset and their stress response (Crum et al., 2013).

1. Care for others. When people experience a lot of stress but also help others, wellbeing improves. As a personal trainer, you may be implementing this strategy without even realizing it.

Help clients identify ways they already help others or can begin to implement helping strategies.

2. Purpose in life reduces stress. People who have purpose worry more and have more stress than those who don’t, but that’s good. When you have a mission, you have more stress resilience.

Ask clients what brings meaning or joy to them. It can reinforce their positive value of stress and worry. It brings meaning to the stress.

3. Focus on how stressful situations foster growth. We typically grow from events we’d like to be protected from ever happening. Ask your client what they’ve learned from their stressors.

You can also ask your clients, how has exercise helped them get through stress? Then ask, how does stress support your exercise?

It appears from the research that the amount of stress your clients perceive they’re under doesn’t affect their mindset about stress. Instead, their mindset affects how they cope with stress. They have the ability to change their mindset. You have a vested interest in that. Prospective clients with a welcoming approach to stress will seek positive health behaviors, including working with you.

A client’s readiness during sessions may be directly related to not just the emotional stressors he or she has but to total allostatic load. This is what I call the stress bucket and Dr. Eric Cobb referred to as the threat bucket in his PTontheNet video (2015).

Help your clients assess their complete allostatic load from all stress sources including emotions, work, diet, exposure to toxins, and physical stress using this stress source list:

Download this simple worksheet

It’s important to look at stress as an integrated whole. If you can coach a client to reduce stress load and increase stress coping strategies, he or she will be more resilient when uncontrollable stressors arise.

Coach the Happiness Out of Stressed Clients

Happiness is a skill. Clients can practice it just like they can practice squats or the Turkish get-up. Your happier clients still have stressors. They just have better coping skills. Evidence shows happier people get paid more, exercise more, and they’re likely to be clients longer. Choose any of the strategies mentioned earlier and these below adapted from an interview with Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, best-selling author of Done is Better Than Perfect and A Happier You (America Meditating, 2016).

Gratitude Journal

Help clients practice positivity. Suggest something as simple as a gratitude list they do each morning or evening. In this almost hypnotic state pre- and post-sleep our thoughts are very influential in changing our feelings.

Session Breakdown

At the end of each session, take a few minutes to give positive feedback about the session or information you learned in the session. Your clients who are auditory learners are the ones who do best with more cues and verbal instruction than others. These clients will benefit most from you doing this positive session summary. For other clients, send a monthly note that compliments their positive progress. This is especially beneficial during times that your client is frustrated with a lack of visible progress.

Take the Stress Challenge

Challenge clients to come up with three positive things about stressful situations. For clients, this might be chronic illness, injury, or a tough time juggling their schedule. Try this yourself. Your client no-shows. You broke speed records to get there and the no-show means no payment. What could your three positive things be?

  1. You have time and motivation to finish the cancellation policy you’ve been putting off.
  2. You can catch up on phone calls or spend time checking in with members.
  3. A no-show no-call customer isn’t a client you want anyway.

Just Breath

Send a short, simple breathing techniques video or audio recording that clients can use with a reminder on their phone or computer. The simple act of breathing deeply reduces stress. Don’t underestimate the value of coaching simple habits.


The frequency and trustful nature of client contact positions you to be a source of thought change that will positively impact health outcomes beyond the physical measure of fitness. Use the three-step approach presented in this article to show your clients how to improve their stress.

  1. Listen for clues that tell you your client’s current stress mindset.
  2. Create awareness of the benefits of a stress-is-enhancing mindset.
  3. Implement in-session and between session strategies for enhancing overall happiness even during times of stress.


America Meditating (Producer). (2016, February 9). Interview with Dr. Elizabeth Lombardo, the Happiness Head Coach [Video File].

Crum, A. J., Salovey, P., & Achor, S. (2013, February 25). Rethinking stress: The role of mindsets in determining the stress response. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 104(4), 716-733. doi:10.1037/a0031201

Keller, A., Litzelman, K., Wisk, L. E., Maddox, T., Cheng, E. R., Creswell, P. D., & Witt, W. P. (2012, September). Does the perception that stress affects health matter? The association with health and mortality. Health Psychology, 31(5), 677-684. doi:10.1037/a0026743

McGonigal, K. (2015). The upside of stress: Why stress is good for you, and how to get good at it. New York: Avery, a member of Penguin Random House.

McGonigal, K. (2013, September 4). How to Make Stress Your Friend. Lecture presented at TED Talks. Retrieved from

PTontheNet (Producer). (2015, December 1). The Threat Bucket: Wrestling with Your Client’s Brain [Video File].