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Cultivating Resilience in Clients

Your members may think that cutting back on exercise will help alleviate stress in their lives; they're wrong.

Researchers and fitness professionals have always been interested in people's responses to stressful events and situations. How is it that some people always complain about everything, and see life falling short of their expectations, while others manage to thrive despite the complexity of their circumstances? Is emotional resilience something that can be improved? Can a healthful lifestyle, especially regular exercise, help?

And if so, how can fitness professionals use this knowledge to increase their own resilience, and to encourage client adherence? Can fitness professionals help clients see that regular physical activity is not a luxury to be dispensed with when times get tough, but a basic requirement for survival, and a way to bolster emotional resilience?

Lifestyle and resilience

Numerous studies have described factors associated with emotional resilience in the face of stress. Many of these factors contribute to personality and outlook, and include qualities such as optimism, spirituality, having a sense of control in life, and a feeling of commitment to one's values, work, family and community. A person's perception of having social support is also strongly linked to resilience. Social support includes not only best friends, but other social connections at work and in the community.

Regular physical activity is also strongly associated with resilience. Is this because resilient people are good time managers, and make time for self-care? Are they just naturally well-balanced and healthy enough to exercise? While resilient people are probably more likely to work physical activity into their lives, research suggests that exercise confers many emotional health benefits likely to strengthen a person's quality of life and emotional resilience. Exercise improves mood and helps people feel more energized. People may feel good about setting and achieving personal goals. Exercise may help people feel better about their bodies as they experience gains in health and fitness. Older adults often see improvements in cognitive function and quality of life. And, of course, good health gives people the ability to do the things that are important to them.

Cultivating resilience in the fitness center

Fitness professionals can help clients cultivate resilience by doing what they do best: giving clients access to great exercise programs. The more satisfaction clients find in their exercise programs, the more reinforcement they receive for staying with you. Good adherence means more exercise benefits, including emotional health benefits.

In addition, fitness professionals can help clients make emotional resilience one of their most important fitness goals. If they see exercise contributing to improved emotional health, they'll be more likely to continue exercising even (especially?) in the face of stress. Fitness professionals can encourage clients to make health and self-care a priority - a necessity, not a luxury. Fitness professionals should model resilience and passion for their work, and, of course, participation in regular exercise.

Fitness managers can take advantage of opportunities to promote meaningful personal connections among staff and clients. Staff members should convey a professional, positive regard for clients. Managers can also encourage clients to include family and friends in their exercise programs. Provide opportunities to bring family members to exercise classes, or to work out with a friend. Have a sense of humor and create ways to make fitness fun.

Some fitness centers create an atmosphere conducive to rejuvenation, which, in itself, reduces stress. Body/mind classes, spa facilities and a pleasant environment provide a counterbalance to our frantic, stressed-out lifestyles.

Brehm, B.A. Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2004.
Seligman, M.E.P., and M. Csikszentmihalyi. Positive psychology: An introduction. American Psychologist 55(1): 5-14, 2000.
Steinhardt, M., and C. Dolbier. Evaluation of a resilience intervention to enhance coping strategies and protective factors and decrease symptomatology. Journal of American College Health 56(4): 445-454, 2008.
Vogt, D.S., S.L. Rizvi, J.C. Shipherd and P.A. Resick. Longitudinal investigation of reciprocal relationship between stress reactions and hardiness. Personality & Social Psychology Bulletin 43(1): 61-74, 2008.
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