How can we tap into clients’ ability to succeed in order to keep them motivated to reach their wellness goals? The key may be to cultivate and support a sense of optimism and a positive frame of mind. Indeed, among many individual variables, attitude is one of the most important things to consider when evaluating a client’s potential for success. There is a long history of research that indicates that there is a powerful connection between a positive frame of mind and the successful achievement of goals, including health and fitness goals. With that in mind, it is important not only to help clients develop better nutrition and exercise habits, but to assess their state of mind and help them to develop and maintain an optimistic attitude toward achieving their goals and maintaining a healthier lifestyle over the long term.
Positive Attitude = Success!
The connection between positive attitude and the achievement of goals is well documented in the research of positive psychology. According to Aspinwall, Richter, and Hoffman (2001), optimists generally cope with all life situations—even stressful and challenging ones—with an attitude of self-efficacy and creative problem-solving. They don’t quit in the face of adversity; rather, they learn and adapt. They tend to take better care of themselves physically and will engage in preventive measures to improve their health and well-being. This is in contrast to pessimists, who tend to exhibit health-damaging behaviors (Carver, Scheier, & Segerstrom, 2010) and who become discouraged when faced with setbacks. When clients come to us for training, then, it is essential to understand their frame of mind. Do they feel capable of losing body fat, getting fit, quitting smoking, eating better, or whatever their wellness goals are? Or are they skeptical of their ability to make these kinds of changes?
Working with Pessimists
It is not unusual for someone not to feel entirely positive about their wellness goals, and it should not be a reason to doubt their ability to achieve their goals. Indeed, many people seek out a trainer precisely because they have not had success on their own. The trainer should be ready to help the client to recognize small achievements that are building up to the ultimate wellness goal and to provide positive feedback about their progress. Over time, their small successes will engender greater self-efficacy and optimism in these clients as they begin to believe that they can do it. Help clients to reflect upon what is working well for them. Gasper, Lozinski, and LeBeau (2009) found that even though pessimism can hinder performance by increasing anxiety and lowering expectations, self-reflection can counteract pessimism. The propensity to reflect can increase goal importance, promote effort, raise initial expectations, and buffer an anticipated sense of failure. This is especially important when clients are faced with a setback on their fitness journeys. It is important to contextualize setbacks as a normal part of the wellness journey and to reassure clients that they are still making long-term progress.
In our experience working with clients, we have found that encouraging them to keep journals is one strategy that may help them in this reflection process. This allows them to assess what situations are leading to stress and anxiety and come up with strategies to minimize the negative thoughts that can sabotage their perceived ability to succeed. Joining support groups and working out with a buddy is another way for people to reflect verbally on their progress, as well as to give and receive encouragement and positive feedback from others who are also working on health and fitness goals.
Working with Optimists
Optimists can usually be guided gently, as they tend to be intrinsically motivated to achieve their goals. Optimists understand that there are ups and downs along the way, and they will tend not to be overly discouraged by temporary setbacks during the process. Trainers can thus focus on providing optimists with sound advice and strategies about achieving their wellness goals. We can also give direct feedback without worrying that clients will be deterred if the feedback doesn’t match their expectations. Srivastava and Angelo (2009) noted that optimistic individuals possess sufficient self-efficacy such that it is not necessary to sugar-coat important feedback about their goals when it is not entirely positive (for example, when a client is not meeting their fitness goals). Optimistic individuals are likely to view such feedback as helpful information toward achieving their goals and will take proactive steps to adapt and change their health, fitness, and nutrition strategies.
By assessing and monitoring our clients’ frame of mind, we can develop individualized approaches to helping them. With optimists, we can foster and support their generally positive frame of mind, and with pessimists we can use strategies that will help them to improve their generally negative frame of mind and shift to a more optimistic mindset.
Assessing Clients’ Attitudes
In assessing whether clients are optimists or pessimists, there are different strategies that trainers can use. A question that trainers can ask clients during an initial assessment might be “How confident are you that you will succeed?” Having an idea of a client’s self-perceived ability to succeed can help us approach clients differently. Asking this question throughout their fitness journey is important as well in order to assess whether they remain confident and motivated.
Mind, Body, and Spirit
It can be helpful, too, to take a holistic approach that acknowledges the mind-body-spirit connection. Many people benefit from taking part in spiritual practices such as meditation, prayer, yoga, breath work, reiki, tai chi, etc. Even if these activities are not done in conjunction with a particular spiritual practice, they can be adapted and used simply as stress-reduction strategies; and they can help to gently restore and support a positive frame of mind. Barton and Miller (2015) note that “spiritual wellbeing has been shown to be negatively associated with life stress and positively associated with happiness and psychological wellbeing” (p. 830). Guiding clients toward activities that will increase their happiness and well-being will help them to approach their health and fitness goals with a greater sense of optimism and confidence.
Brief Case Studies
In our experience, we found that praising clients’ successes empowers them and allows them to become and/or persist in being confident in their ability to succeed, regardless of whether they have an optimistic or pessimistic outlook. The difference is in how we provide feedback. Clients that have increased drive and intrinsic (internal) motivation may not need as much support; whereas clients whose drive is initially low or dwindling will benefit by extrinsic (external) motivation that we can provide. In our experience, the latter benefit by more frequent support, such as additional check-ins in the form of text messages and/or phone calls.
Our approach in holding clients accountable if they do not meet their goals is different as well. Optimistic clients will take constructive criticism as a challenge; however, pessimistic clients may view constructive criticism as failure. Hence, reviewing journals with these type of clients and allowing them to come up with their own self-evaluation and realistic strategies is an approach we have found to be effective.
Every client is different, and it is important that we adapt to individual variables in order to motivate clients to remain committed in reaching their health and wellness goals. Helping clients develop and maintain a positive frame of mind will benefit them physically and emotionally. Using an individualized, holistic approach can help clients remain positive as they encounter the challenges of meeting their goals.
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Aspinwall, L. G., Richter, L., & Hoffman, R. R. (2001). Understanding how optimism works: An examination of optimists’ adaptive moderation of belief and behavior. In E. C. Chang (Ed.), Optimism & pessimism: Implications for theory, research, and practice, 217-238. American Psychological Association, Washington, DC. doi:http://dx.doi.org/ 10.1037/10385-010
Barton, Y. A., & Miller, L. (2015). Spirituality and positive psychology go hand in hand: An investigation of multiple empirically derived profiles and related protective benefits. Journal of religion and health, 54(3), 829-843.
Carver, C. S., Scheier, M. F., & Segerstrom, S. C. (2010). Optimism. Clinical Psychology Review, 30(7), pp. 879-889. doi: http://dx.doi.org/10.1016/j.cpr.2010.01.006
Gasper, K., Lozinski, R. H. & Lebeau, L. S. (2009). If you plan, then you can: How reflection helps defensive pessimists pursue their goals. Motivation and Emotion, 33(2), 203-216. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1007/s11031-009-9125-5
Srivastava, S., & Angelo, K. M. (2009). Optimism, effects on relationships. In H. T. Reis and S. K. Sprecher (Eds.), Encyclopedia of human relationships. Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage. Retrieved from http://pages.uoregon.edu/sanjay/pubs/optimismrels.pdf
Susan Ricardo Buckley, MS, RD, LD/N, CPT is a Registered / Licensed Dietitian and Certified Fitness Trainer with over twenty years of experience in the field of teaching, nutrition, fitness and consulting. She earned her Master’s of Science degree in Dietetics and Nutrition (2000) as well as a Bachelor’s in Business Administration (Human Resources Management with a minor in Psychology, 1987) from Florida International University in Miami, Florida. Susan has been certified with the National Federation of Professional Trainers since 1994 and is a full time faculty member at the University of Phoenix. In addition to teaching, her field experience includes wellness consulting; i.e., medical nutrition therapy, nutrition/fitness counseling, and public speaking.
Melissa Stock, MA is an educator who works with at-risk students at University of Phoenix to help them achieve their academic, career, and life goals. She earned her Master of Arts in History at Emory University in Atlanta, Georgia, and her Bachelor of Arts in American Studies at Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida. She is also a Reiki master in the Usui tradition.