Exercise Adherence is Achilles' Heel of Even the Best New Year's Resolutions

Exercise adherence is the Achilles' heel of even the best New Year's resolutions.

"I have been working with the new intern at our fitness center. She is feeling frustrated about getting new clients started on well-designed exercise programs, but then having half of them stop showing up for their workouts. Yesterday she asked me, 'How do you make people stick to their exercise programs?' I didn't know where to start. I remember being her age and thinking, 'If I could just do and say the right things, I could convince anyone to exercise. If everyone knew what I knew, they would want to exercise!' She seemed disappointed to hear me say that not everyone who signs up for personal training is really committed to sticking to an exercise program. I also explained that no one knows why some people drop out and others become lifelong exercisers. It's still a mystery to me. I am going to give her some reading on the stages of change model. Maybe this will help her get a better idea of where her clients are coming from. She may need to spend less time teaching lifting techniques and more time listening to her clients' concerns."

The new year often prompts people to renew their vows to exercise regularly. People may start exercising not because they really want to, but because they know they should. Fitness professionals must be aware that some clients have not quite made the commitment to make their health a priority, and may be somewhat ambivalent about sticking to an exercise program.

Understanding who your clients are, their level of commitment, their expectations regarding their exercise programs and their motivations for exercise can help you design effective exercise programs. Your goal is to create recommendations that will not only help clients get in shape, but will maximize their chances for successful adherence, and for the development of a commitment to lifelong physical activity.

Is your client ready to change?

Before you begin piling on the exercise advice, take some time to assess your client's readiness to commit to an exercise program. This assessment should be part of your early work with new clients. Many fitness professionals use some sort of brief questionnaire or interview based on the Stages of Change model.1,2 Briefly, this model suggests that people generally go through several stages in their attempts to change their behavior, from thinking about changing, to deciding to change, making preparations to change and eventually initiating actual changes in behavior. New Year's resolutions may bring in clients preparing to change. Their meeting with you may be the first step in actually attempting to begin an exercise program. Your job with these clients is to strengthen their resolve and build their confidence.

Helping clients preparing to begin

While your work with new clients appears to be taking place in the physical realm, you must encourage an equal amount of work in the emotional/mental realm so that clients are not only strengthening their muscles, but their decisions to be active. Clients in the early days of starting an exercise program may have a fairly fragile commitment, and their plans may be easily disrupted.

When you work with these clients, spend some time getting to know them better. Most will still be struggling with fitting exercise into their days, and weighing exercise pros and cons. Discuss their exercise histories, and incorporate factors that have helped them stick to exercise programs in the past. Anticipate and address difficulties that have previously disrupted exercise programs.

As you learn more about your clients, individualize your recommendations as much as possible. Link regular physical activity to the things that seem to be important to them. Clients need to see that regular exercise is essential for good health, and that health is a priority because, without it, their other roles in life become compromised. Clients must feel in their hearts that regular physical activity improves performance in all areas of life.

Clients preparing to be regular exercisers may become discouraged easily. Begin slowly and simply to bolster confidence. Use tried and true strategies to reinforce participation. These include exercising with a friend or partner, recording workouts in some kind of exercise log and rewarding adherence. And, even if your faith in some clients is shaky, always express confidence that they will be successful.

1. Brehm, B.A. Successful Fitness Motivation Strategies. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2004.
2. Marcus, B., and L. Forsyth. Motivating People to be Physically Active. Human Kinetics: Champaign, Ill., 2003.
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