By using these cutting edge strategies, you can help even your toughest clients follow the rules.
In the fitness industry we often joke that clients are looking for “the magic pill.” But here’s the real joke: Even if such a pill existed, clients wouldn’t actually take it.
Compliance — people doing what they know they should — is a critical problem in the fitness industry.
[The medical industry too: miracle cancer and diabetes drugs prescribed by MDs are taken a shockingly low 55% of the time.]
That’s why, in this video series, we’ll share 5 strategies for helping clients — even the toughest ones — follow the “rules.” The rules we know can change their lives.
This video is about 6 minutes long.
What to do about tough clients
Tough clients. Every nutrition and fitness professional’s got them.
You know, the ones that make you gnash your teeth, bite your tongue, and think: What the heck is wrong with you people? Why can’t you follow simple instructions or do what’s good for you?
But don’t take it personally.
Pharmaceutical companies and physicians are gnashing their teeth too. You see, medical patients aren’t taking their pills either.
When prescribed life-saving cancer, heart disease, and diabetes medications they take them a shockingly low 55% of the time.
If almost half of people can’t spare ten seconds to pop a pill, how in heaven’s name can we expect them to eat right and exercise?
Again, as nutritional and fitness professionals, we wonder: What’s wrong with them? Why are people so… illogical?
Are clients really illogical?
Most of us assume that people — clients, friends, family members — base decisions on the rational deliberations of the logical left brain, “our inner grownup”.
However, behavior research — including neurological imaging data — suggests otherwise.
What really drives most of our decision making (whether we’re willing to admit it or not) is our emotional, empathetic, image-oriented right brain.
That changes how we coach.
Clients’ puzzlingly contradictory behavior also reflects competing life priorities and brain circuits.
They’re usually not aware of these internal conflicts, so it’s hard for them to even explain why the heck they’d sign up for a gym membership and then never show up. Or vow to eat better at 9 am but end eating ice cream at 9 pm on the same day.
The logical brain vs. the emotional brain
To help us understand this seeming contradiction, let’s turn to the groundbreaking book Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath.
In this book, the Heath brothers liken the left and the right brain’s relationship to a person riding an elephant. The rider is the rational left brain. The powerful, but potentially unreliable elephant is the emotional, intuitive right brain.
The rider might be in charge for a while, but the elephant will always win in the end. Especially if they’re at odds and the rider becomes fatigued from constant responsibility, decision-making, and elephant steering.
There are many reasons why the elephant can become unruly.
First, brain circuits (such as the orbital-medial prefrontal cortex, or the OMPFC) dedicated to keeping us logical and reasonable were late to the evolutionary game.
Our “smart human” brain components evolved much later than our “reptilian” components (which control things like breathing, heart rate, fluid balance, etc.), our “early mammalian” components (which control things like mating and social behavior), and our sensory and motor components (which help us see, hear, taste, smell, stay upright, and play tennis).
The “smart human brain” components floating around behind our eyes don’t have neurological primacy. In other words, they’re not our evolutionary “default setting” and thus don’t guide our bodies and our behavior as much as we might prefer.
For the most part, our physical sensations and feedback loops, and our emotional feelings, actually drive the bus. Whether we’re aware of their activity or not, most of the time the more primal brain circuits are in charge of our decisions.
In essence, the “smart human brain” contributes much less than we think.
(Don’t believe me? Check your heart rate and palm sweating next time you feel road rage. That’s your sympathetic nervous system-dominant defense mechanism kicking in to keep you safe from the “threat” of that jerk who cut you off while yapping on his cell phone.)
Survival, threat, and fitness
Second, these “reptilian” and “early mammalian” brain parts are dedicated to our survival. They want to feed us, keep us happy, keep us safe, and feel as good as possible.
Yet “dieting” or embarking on a new fitness plan in the 21st century means purposely enduring discomfort, restricting activities and foods that soothe us (or give us a “high”), and/or adding more demands or stimulation to an already busy schedule.
If you think about it, why would any client ever eat less and go to a gym with bright lights, loud music, and unfamiliar equipment, in order to expend excess energy?
To the primal brain, these things are a threat. Threats require defense – such as running away or playing dead. In other words, bailing on a gym membership, “flaking out” on a meal plan, being lazy, or “forgetting” to plan a healthy dinner.
So, trying to get a client to purposely endure restriction, social awkwardness, or discomfort goes against everything our brains evolved to do. It’s like trying to run new software on an old – very, very old – computer.
What about willpower?
Finally, some evidence suggests that “willpower” – or the conscious “control” of unwanted impulses – may actually use up much of the brain’s fuel resources.
Functional MRI studies that look at glucose utilization in the brain seem to show that self-governance is energetically costly.
The ability to discipline ourselves is a bank account that gets depleted pretty quickly – especially if we’re making constant withdrawals without willpower-boosting deposits (such as enjoyment).
However, there’s some good news here too. Other studies on willpower also suggest that willpower strength also depends on beliefs about willpower. If clients believe in their own self-control and self-efficacy, they’re more likely to feel (and exert) “willpower”.
Thus, as a fitness pro, one of your roles is to help clients build the skills to be (and feel) resilient, proactive, and in charge of their lives and routines.
Wrap-up and today’s takeaways
That’s it for part 1 of Cutting Edge Fitness and Nutrition Coaching.
In the end, you don’t need to be a neuroscientist to get all of this; just remember three things:
- In neurological terms, we’re wired for safety, comfort, energy conservation, survival.
- For most clients, working out and changing eating habits contravene those goals.
- When humans perceive a threat (real or imagined), defense mechanisms kick in.
And as a coach, you won’t get anywhere, especially if you push harder. You may need to build some foundational resilience skills and self-efficacy first.
To continue with this video series, click here for part 2. In it, we’ll explore what’s going on in clients’ brains (and lives) so you can better understand how to help them change.
If you’re a coach, or you want to be…
You can help people build nutrition and lifestyle habits that improve their physical and mental health, bolster their immunity, help them better manage stress, and get sustainable results. We'll show you how.
If you’d like to learn more, consider the PN Level 1 Nutrition Coaching Certification.