Learning from Exercise Relapse

Viewing relapse as a learning experience can enhance the effectiveness of exercise program design, and help clients overcome a sense of failure and return anew to the fitness center.

MOST FITNESS PROFESSIONALS have watched in frustration as clients struggle to turn over a new leaf, only to slip back into their same old can't-make-time-for-exercise selves. Of course, this is not just a scenario we witness in January as fallout from overambitious New Year's resolutions. Exercising is a difficult behavior to maintain because it takes so much time and energy. Teaching ourselves and our clients to view relapse as a learning experience can enhance the effectiveness of exercise program design, and help clients overcome a sense of failure and return anew to the fitness center.

Don't take it personally

Before you initiate discussions with your falling-by-the-wayside clients, you must get over any emotional response you may be having to your clients' difficulties. Getting frustrated, irritated and angry won't coax your clients back. Maintain your interested, sympathetic and professional attitude.

Help clients view relapse as a learning experience

Relapse means returning to behavior patterns, such as being sedentary or overeating, that clients have attempted to change. If your client drops out of activities for a week or two because of travel, illness or other disruptions, it is not a relapse if they resume their activities after that week or two. The danger, of course, is that a short period of inactivity can lead to an indefinite relapse.

Some clients may behave as though relapse means failure. These clients sometimes get so distraught about their "failures" that they drop out entirely. Studies have found that negative emotions associated with behavior change are a strong deterrent to maintaining that behavior change. For example, if clients feel embarrassed about skipping exercise sessions, it may seem easier to them not to face you, or not to come back to the fitness center. They may associate the fitness center with feelings of failure and low self-esteem.

Is there any way you can help these clients develop a more positive and realistic attitude toward exercise? You can start by stating your understanding that life can get complicated, and acknowledging that your clients have other commitments in their lives besides their exercise programs. While urging clients to make their health and fitness a priority, admit that this can even be a struggle for you and other clients you work with. If possible, show that you appreciate them as people, even as you remind them of the importance of their resolutions to exercise.

When opportunity arises, help clients explore relapse experiences in more depth. Ask about these experiences. Be a good listener, and work with clients to figure out how to use this knowledge to improve their chances of success. But take the word "relapse" out of your vocabulary when talking with your clients. Help them learn from their difficulties. This learning can increase the likelihood of success in future behavior-change efforts. Help your clients see prior "failures" as learning opportunities, rather than indicators of limited potential or personal weakness.

You can also talk about success!

Past successful experiences with sticking to an exercise program also provide good information. What was it about past successes that made them successful? Can these elements be incorporated into the current exercise program?

Coach clients to imagine a return after relapse

Encourage clients to imagine that, in the future, something may force them to temporarily abandon their exercise plans. How might this happen? What will it feel like? And how will they get back into exercising regularly?

Help clients realize that skipping a workout can happen, and should not be construed as failure. Advise them that when they miss a workout, the best thing is to think about how they will get to their next exercise session. Clients must also learn not to let negative feelings of failure get in the way of their continuing commitment to their exercise program.

Giner-Sorolla, R. Guilty pleasures and grim necessities: Affective attitudes in dilemmas of self-control. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (2): 206-221, 2001.

Marlatt, B.A., and W.H. George. Relapse prevention and the maintenance of optimal health. In The Handbook of Health Behavior Change, edited by S.A. Shumaker, E.B. Schron, J.K. Ockene and W.L. McBee. Springer: New York, N.Y., 1998.

Tice, D.M., E. Bratslavsky and R.F. Baumeister. Emotional distress regulation takes precedence over impulse control: If you feel bad, do it! Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 80 (1): 53-67, 2001.

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