Knowing how ready to change a potential client who walks through your club doors is can save personal trainers time and energy, and also help guide new clients in an effective manner. Sometimes, as fitness professionals, the best we can do to motivate the people in our community…is wait. Most researchers would argue that motivation to start any type of behavior change initiative, like starting an exercise program, must be intrinsic in order to really drive a person to act. As professionals, we know that a lifestyle of fitness requires commitment, planning, and consistency. And we can help with all of that, but not until our potential client is ready to act.
Prochaska and Motivation
James O. Prochaska first presented his Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) in a 1983 paper about cigarette smokers and their willingness, and success, at smoking cessation. Prochaska is a long-time professor of Psychology at Rhode Island University and Director of Cancer Prevention Resource Center. His long and successful career is highlighted by his research in behavior change and behavior change interventions, much like TTM. TTM is easily one of the most widely sourced models in the realm of behavior change in a number of categories from drug addiction, weight loss, exercise, health care, and psychiatry.
His work on the Transtheoretical Model has been used far and wide throughout the fitness industry. The 5 Stages of Change, an important aspect of TTM, present a well-defined road map to understanding where an individual is in regard to their “readiness to change”. As personal trainers and health coaches, we can leverage the Stages of Change to help us be better prepared to serve our clients throughout every part of their journey. How do we use motivation, through the lens of TTM.
Stage 1: Pre-contemplation
This stage can be best defined as…”no”. Thats a tongue-in-cheek way of say that the individual is not interested. Very little chance that statistics, facts, or information of any sort will change their mind or motivate them to start any new lifestyle change. This individual might even actively avoid new information that would support their decision to take on a new endeavor like starting a program with a personal trainer.
The Backfire Effect, for example, describes the tendency for an individual to grasp even tighter to the status quo when new information is presented as a means to avoid change. The best thing we can do for someone like this in our community is simply be available. Whether it’s through our marketing and social media, our business network, or our social circle, we can be front and center when they enter the next stage of Prochaska’s TTM.
Stage 2: Contemplation
This is where the individual gets to the “maybe” part of their journey. They purposely seek out information about their goals. Maybe they remember seeing a friend’s Instagram post picturing them with their trainer. They might then watch some videos, look up the trainer, and check prices. Here the individual is interested in information that would help with their desired behavior change, but not quite ready to show up to the gym.
Too much pressure might create a fear of failure, so provide some suggestions, and be available to this person. This is where your regular, free, community content might be a valuable tool for future recruitment. The individual still isn’t primed for motivational influence, but Availability and Repetition are valuable tools the come in handy when they ARE ready.
Stage 3: Preparation
In stage 3 of Prochaska’s model the individual is in the “planning” phase. Now is when phone calls are made and emails are sent, appointments are booked, and new sneakers are purchased. If the fitness professional was able to interact during the previous 2 stages, then this should go well. Be sure to reduce friction as much as possible.
Friction is essentially any set of “barriers” that make it harder for an individual to commit to an action. Whether it’s a lock on a door, a door in general, or false thoughts, any hurdle provides an opportunity for this person to turn away. Whether this means to offer a trial session, a personalized schedule, or maybe some references from your existing client base, this is the tipping point for the individual. Appointments or various events should be scheduled for as soon as possible in order to take advantage of momentum.
Stage 4: Action
This stage is the “do” stage. The individual is on their feet, in full gear, ready to answer your questions and complete their first workout. It is further defined within the literature as the individual doing, or having done something to reach their goals “within the past 6 months”. While they are participating in exercise regularly, or eating healthy well-planned meals, they are in the Action stage.
This is where the fitness professional’s guidance and expertise come into play. The Action stage is not permanent, like any other state of motivation; it can wane. We help to maintain motivation by delivering successful programs in a fun and nurturing environment. Helping the client achieve “wins” on a regular basis, and reducing the effects of loss aversion are valuable tasks in this stage.
Stage 5: Maintenance
The Maintenance stage can sometimes be the hardest part. The “commitment, planning, and consistency” we mentioned in the opening paragraph are all put to the test here. But, as we deliver the components of ongoing motivation and success, and as the individual develops healthy habits and behaviors, they require constant upkeep. The most motivated of humans doesn’t work like a crock pot…you can’t set it & forget it.
Regular behavioral change and motivational process still need to be applied, especially during any major life events, and over time. For example, the surgeon general suggested that after four years 43% of ex-smokers relapse, but after five years, that number is reduced to 7% (US Department). Many behavioral scientists would argue that the most effective way to achieve successful behavior change is for the individual’s identity to eventually encompass their new action. Convince your client they are “an exerciser” and you might keep them in this stage.
The TTM is a great tool for fitness professionals to use as a guide for affecting behavior change. In his long and successful career, Prochaska re-examined his model many times through many different lenses. Later models included a final step where the behavior is “terminated” and included the consideration for “relapse”. The model consists of a number of other nuances as well, inside of each of these Stages of Change are various Processes of Change.
Motivation isn’t the only factor of course: Prochaska also suggests that Ability to make change and Importance of change matter too (Mehl). Our environment, family, identity, and values ultimately lead to our desire for change. Understanding how ready a client is to genuinely change can help make us better fitness professionals.
Prochaska JO, Velicer WF. The transtheoretical model of health behavior change. Am J Health Promot. 1997 Sep-Oct;12(1):38-48. doi: 10.4278/0890-1171-12.1.38. PMID: 10170434.
Steven Mehl, PhD (Bloomsburg University CCHD)
US Department of Health and Human Services The Health Benefits of Smoking Cessation: A Report of the Surgeon General DHHS Pub No. CDC-90-8416. Washington, D.C.; U.S. Government Printing Office, 1990