We are a month into a new year and, true to form, weight loss goals dominate the minds of many fitness clients. While weight loss is a valid goal for many individuals who seek our services, it is also a product or outcome-based goal. In other words, it’s not a behavior that is subject to change. Instead, weight loss is the result of many small behavior changes.
As fitness professionals, we are well-positioned to help encourage our clients to identify non-scale behaviors to modify that can support the intended long-term outcome: weight loss. Here are some behaviors to encourage and evaluate with clients.
Water is an important non-calorie containing nutrient that all cells, organs, and tissues require to function optimally. The body loses water through natural physiological processes – breathing, digestion, sweating, etc. What we lose, we must replace.
Research has demonstrated that an increase in water intake “is associated with loss of body weight produced via two mechanisms: decreased feeding and increased lipolysis” (Thornton, 2016). It’s not uncommon for thirst to mask itself as hunger causing an individual to reach for food instead of a glass of water. Doing this multiple times a day will likely result in overconsumption of calories and if that isn’t balanced with expenditure, weight gain is the inevitable consequence. It’s important for health and fitness professionals to not only ask their clients to track water intake but to encourage intuitive identification of thirst/dehydration and physiological hunger/need for fuel.
When asking clients to keep track of nutrient and water intake, ask specific reflective questions such as:
- At what points during the day do you reach for something to drink?
- When do you find yourself feeling thirsty?
- How is your energy level after you consume water?
- Can you describe the barriers you perceive when it comes to consuming water or eating hydrating foods?
Asking questions of this nature will give you insight into client behavior and barriers. Together, you can address obstacles and collaborate on solutions.
Have you had a client say to you “I only need 6 hours of sleep a night”? As research progresses, the fitness industry more mindfully acknowledges the value of sleep and its impact on weight gain and loss. For example, we know that there is an association between a lack of sleep and negative metabolic consequences. We also know that a lack of sleep results in greater feelings of hunger and increased appetite – neither of which bode well for weight loss (Mayo Clinic).
While health and fitness professionals aren’t necessarily sleep coaches, the presence of sleep-related issues in our field warrants thoughtful conversation with our clients about their own sleep fitness and routines.
When working with clients, consider sleep a top priority and worth asking about regularly. Encourage clients to keep a sleep journal, or to share their tracking device data, and discuss ways they can improve their sleep habits such as reducing blue light exposure before bed, avoiding caffeine later in the afternoon, or waiting until 10 a.m. to consume caffeine, allowing cortisol levels to rise (the body’s version of a stimulant). If you suspect your client has a chronic sleep issue or disorder, refer them to the appropriate professional for specific assistance.
It’s a well-known fact that when individuals experience high levels of stress and/or find themselves unable to effectively manage daily stress, making healthy choices increases in difficulty. During intense emotional stress, individuals may have a tendency to eat to fulfill an emotional need. All of this ultimately leads to weight gain (Mayo Clinic).
Stress is unavoidable but it is manageable if we work with our clients to develop effective techniques to mitigate stress. Start by taking a stress inventory with your clients to determine what stressors present the greatest threat. Once your clients identify what pulls them down, they can more intentionally apply strategies to reduce stress. Further, you can practice stress management exercises with them before and after each session such as mindful reflection, intention-setting, and yoga as part of a cool-down.
There is such a thing as the “active couch potato” or someone who sets aside a block of time to exercise and then remains sedentary throughout the day. As research evolves, we are finding continuous negative effects on health with an increase in sedentary time. Talk to your clients about NEAT – non-exercise activity thermogenesis. This represents the energy the body uses for all actions and processes that don’t include sleep, eating, or intentional exercise (Levine, 2002).
Guide your clients through an exploration of how they might be able to reduce sedentary time without adding minutes to their scheduled exercise. This might include setting a timer to remind them to get up and walk for 5 minutes every two hours. Or it might mean they invest in a stability ball chair for work. Still, some clients might prefer taking regular standing breaks and throwing in a few bodyweight squats or flexibility exercises. The more the body moves, the more calories are burned.
Rushing through meals and snacking at a work desk are common habits for many clients. Distracted eating may result in increased weight gain (Harvard Health, 2011). Research is revealing the importance of slowing down and connecting with a meal. Interestingly, a growing body of literature reveals benefits of mindful eating that include improved digestion, enhanced enjoyment, and weight management. If you have clients who experience rushed mealtimes, help them outline an action plan to slow down and eat with a more mindful approach.
This might mean setting a “tech-free dinner table” rule, taking smaller bites, holding utensils with the non-dominant hand. Any technique that forces the mind to engage with the behavior will help clients engage more fully with their meal. They may end up eating fewer calories and consuming smaller portions – not to mention facilitating digestion and nutrient absorption.
Progress is not solely reflected by the number on the scale. We place too much emphasis on something that, in isolation of other metrics, reveals nothing but a client’s relationship with gravity. Progress is truly about modifying risk factors and making impactful changes in behavior. As fitness professionals, we can astutely guide our clients in those efforts. Weight loss will simply be a result of many small changes managed over time.
Levine J. A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best practice & research. Clinical endocrinology & metabolism, 16(4), 679–702. https://doi.org/10.1053/beem.2002.0227
Thornton S. N. (2016). Increased Hydration Can Be Associated with Weight Loss. Frontiers in nutrition, 3, 18. https://doi.org/10.3389/fnut.2016.00018