The excuse. It’s a bad, bad, thing. Or is it? Most of the messaging that we hear regarding fitness is still deeply entrenched in the view that excuses mean that we’re either weak-minded or that we just don’t want to be fit badly enough. If you look at enough fitspo, you might conclude that if we simply dig deep, commit, and suck it up, we’ll finally nail our goals. It’s a smug and ultimately ignorant view of how people change their behaviors.
A perfect illustration of this sometimes well-intentioned but futile view on behavior change arrived on Facebook recently. A personal trainer posted in an industry group, voicing his frustration with a client. “I’ve never met someone with so many excuses,” he lamented. He rattled off a list of concerns: missed sessions due to sick kids, refusals to plan meals, and so on. He wanted to help her, but believed that if she wasn’t willing to put in the work he was wasting his time. A few other fit pros supported him, echoing his sentiments.
“Don’t waste your time”.
“Our business is about results. Don’t be afraid to fire her”.
A few, however, were on the right track.
“Your client is the best source of her solutions.”
“You might need to scale back.”
Yes. This. The problem with looking at clients as ‘non-compliant’ or ‘combative’ is that we miss the reasons that they’re resisting change. As fitness professionals, we need to do better. We must meet our clients where they are at and work as partners to troubleshoot the barriers they encounter. And most importantly, we need to accept that our clients really do have all the answers inside of them. We facilitate that change and handle the details.
So let’s back up a step. Do you recall a situation where someone told you what you needed to do but it wasn’t something you were really motivated to do already? How did you respond? Most likely, you dug in your heels a bit and resisted changing.
Think about a doctor telling her overweight patient that he needs to start exercising. If the idea of exercise isn’t already a priority, or feels too overwhelming, that new routine is unlikely to stick.
Psychology professor James O. Prochaska developed a model in 1977 for the stages of change that we go through for specific behaviors. The first two, pre-contemplation and contemplation, are where many people sit for years with certain behaviors such as exercise.
These stages have no moral value: it’s not wrong to be in pre-contemplation, the stage where one sees the most excuses being made. To be in pre-contemplation means that a behavior really isn’t even a priority to a person. A person in pre-contemplation doesn’t believe that they need to change what they’re already doing.
By contrast, the stage of contemplation demonstrates a person’s acknowledgement that they need or want to change. However, this is where many people get stuck for a long while. They may be ambivalent or they may lack the tools or support to actually move forward.
The most interesting part about this model is the non-linear design. In other words,we don’t move in a neat continuum from total denial to maintaining a new behavior. Life is far messier. We often move back and forth. Understanding this reality can color the way we strategize for the long term. Fit pros need to develop unique approaches for where their clients are in the present moment.
As trainers, we begin by partnering instead of commanding. We need to listen and ask instead of telling people what to do.
Excuses are opportunities. They are open doors that allow us to explore and grow. People who find themselves making excuses might want to consider the following:
- How confident do I feel about what I’m doing to change? Do I need more guidance?
- How important is this change in my life?
- Why did I make a change in the first place? Do the things that I make excuses for actually fit well into my life? (Do I have enough time to train for the triathlon I vowed to complete? Do I actually enjoy running?)
- If what I’m doing isn’t currently working, what is one small step that I feel confident about taking?
- Why do I put up the roadblock? Is there a deeper reason that I am not succeeding in my plan?
Resistance does not make someone a failure. Instead, it is a gift– it’s a giant clue that indicates the need to scale back a plan or to re-assess how well it actually fits into someone’s life. If a personal trainer, a dietitian, or other health pro encounters excuses, what they likely need to do is accept that what they are asking is either too much, too soon, or not the best fit.
Prochaska, JO.; DiClemente, CC. The transtheoretical approach. In: Norcross, JC; Goldfried, MR. (eds.) Handbook of psychotherapy integration. 2nd ed. New York: Oxford University Press; 2005. p. 147–171. ISBN 0-19-516579-9.