I was fortunate enough to grow up in a place, with a family, where movement and sport every single day was simply the norm. Most importantly, I had access to it through my school and family environment. There is no doubt to the source of my passion. Because of this upbringing and value sets, I gravitated to socialising and forming networks and friendship groups with like-minded individuals. Selection bias then meant that what I thought was just the norm, to train and be active every day, must be how everyone feels. I now realise that my views were, and are, far from societal norms
Reflecting back 15yrs ago, I was so excited building programs for others (just like I still am today!), thinking about all the joy and excitement they too would have once they commenced my training plan. I also remember the struggles and lack of understanding that I had when I would write a client a really detailed program, put hours of design into an annual plan, and then they just wouldn’t stick to it. Even though we had clearly worked collaboratively to establish the goals. It just didn’t make sense to me.
It must be someone’s fault, right? Yeah that must be it, the client just isn’t ‘motivated’. Wait, maybe my programming is not right, and that’s why they are not maintaining consistency and therefore not getting the results. I would get frustrated with the client, maybe its them, frustrated with myself, maybe it was me.
So, to solve the puzzle, I studied, I studied hard. Top of the class in all university courses, constantly reading academic papers (still do!), podcasts, weekend courses, monthly reviews, blogs, internships, the lot. I wanted to make sure I had as many of the answers possible. And even after all that, there were still some clients who struggled to make progress, recover from injury, lose weight. And it was no one’s fault.
The more years I spent in the industry, the more I gained a greater understanding of human behaviour, psychology and varying personality traits, the more I realised my views and expectations of activity and exercise are not the norm. Making a change to your health & fitness, whatever your goal, from performance, fat loss, rehabilitation, disease management & prevention, is HARD! It’s the unconscious nature of our habits, good or bad, that can make them difficult to change (1).
Despite all my education, desire, program design focus, inspirational quotes, people still struggled to get the ‘basic’ stuff right. Why? Humans are not great at change, most don’t know how to change, we resist it. Some people (like myself) feel off, stressed and anxious even at the thought of change in routine, let alone putting it into action.
Behavioural change is a very complicated subject, far greater detail is required than just a simple blog like this. Everyone will need a slightly different approach that is matched to their needs, but I will provide with you just a few quick tips on how you can start to change your habits, to improve your health & fitness.
- Make sure you and your coach address the elephant before the rider, speak to the emotional brain before the rational brain. The emotional brain requires understanding, empathy, to feel safe, the rational brain likes facts and logic. If you spend too much time and energy trying to reason, or motivate your way in to change, eventually you will tire and fall off track, the 5-tonne powerful emotional elephant side of the brain will win out. Address the emotional element (elephant), make sure you feel safe in the environment, have trust in your coach you are working with, feel understood about what you are wanting to do and where you have come from. Then the rational brain (rider) can take control and create direction through skills and knowledge you are taught.
Click this link for a full article on this behavioural change concept.
- Start small – Very small. Don’t try to introduce too many things at once, one small habit done well beats a thousand performed inconsistently. Trying too many things at once, such as a whole new training regime, while starting a new diet and changing your bed and wake up time, will undoubtedly result in you dropping the ball. This then puts a dent in your self-efficacy and can stimulate feelings of failure, leading to further negative views around exercise and health. It’s not about a complete overhaul, the small changes you implement should feel easy. And there are no doubt many things you are already doing well that you can lean on too. Make small, strategic habit changes, gained through skill acquisition and education, and they will stick for the long term. The small changes need to be easy to do and repeatable, habits become stronger the more they are repeated (2), particularly if you repeat the habit in the same context. As an example, if you introduce movement/exercise every morning as the first thing you do, it will be easier to repeat this behaviour over time. Those small inches at the start, well, they add up to miles.
- Maintain control – Keep your hands on the wheel, if you rely on others to do everything for you, it’s a passive journey, then you are not creating habit change, you are creating dependency. Make sure you are guided through your health and fitness journey through collaboration with a skilled coach/practitioner. Find someone who educates you on how to self-manage, engages you in planning, gives you programs to do on your own, and builds your confidence in movement and activity through skill acquisition.
Click this link for a full article on what to look for in a coach.
- Failure is ok – Don’t panic if you slip and fall off the rails, or if you find it really hard to develop the fitness habits you want. If you are successful the very first time you try to adopt a positive health habit that is fantastic, but you would be one of very few. Most people will struggle to adopt a new habit and maintain it long term at first attempt, or even second or third for that matter. A great example of this is in studies of people trying to quit smoking. It has been shown that even after failure to quit, with each attempt people develop a higher chance of success the next time (3).
So, there you go, if you are not having the success you want in your health and fitness goals, are struggling to implement habit change, it’s not your fault. You are not weak. You are not unmotivated. Change is hard. Keep it simple, keep it education focussed, make it sustainable, don’t ignore the emotional elements and keep at it. Failure is a step closer to success.
Written by Head Performance Coach and Co-founder David Smith
- Gardner, B., de Bruijn, G., & Lally, P. (2011). A systematic review and meta-analysis of applications of the self-report habit index to nutrition and physical activity behaviours. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 42(2), 174-87.
- Rothman, A. J., Sheeran, P., & Wood, W. (2009). Reflective and automatic processes in the initiation and maintenance of dietary change. Annals of Behavioural Medicine, 38, S4–S17.
- Caponnetto, P., & Polosa, R. (2008). Common predictors of smoking cessation in clinical practice. Respiratory Medicine, 102(8), 1182-92.
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