Many of us fail to build a fitness habit not through any lack of knowledge but because we over-reach at the beginning in terms of commitment required. Then we panic and eventually self sabotage, and give up.
When I started out as a personal trainer I completely misunderstood this, assuming clients just needed my ‘knowledge bombs’ rather than help in building fitness habits into their lives.
Once I understood how to help others avoid over-reaching and self-sabotage in their attempts to start getting in shape, I managed to help a lot more people get fitter, slimmer and stronger, while realizing why I was failing miserably in building habits in areas of my own life.
So let me explain how I messed up, how I fixed it, and how you can build a fitness habit for yourself.
How I misunderstood literally all my clients
I’m ‘into’ fitness and nutrition, and run my own personal training business. It’s been my thing for over 20 years now. So I don’t have a “I used to be fat and now I’m not” story to tell, as I’ve never really struggled with staying in shape and eating right.
Bully for you, I hear you say, quit yer bragging.
The thing is, it’s because I’ve never found staying in shape that difficult that I truly sucked as a personal trainer when I first started out.
When we’re good at something and others aren’t, we feel that we can ‘help’. But we often end up helping in a hey-just-do-what-I-do sense.
If we don’t really know how we developed our own good habits, it can be incomprehensible why others don’t seem to be able to follow our well-intentioned guidance.
I lost a ton of clients by simply not understanding how to teach new habits to people who just weren’t that into diet and fitness like I am, or appreciating the dangers of aiming too high too soon.
When I opened a training studio I expected clients to mirror my own commitment to staying fit and healthy. They were paying me, so I assumed that meant I had buy-in and they were ready to follow all my awesome advice, right?
Not quite. The same scenario repeated itself over and over again:
- They asked for help in losing weight and getting fit;
- They had their training sessions at the studio;
- As ‘homework’ we would give them beautifully formatted, detailed home training and diet plans to follow;
- One week later — “Oh I see you’ve not followed the plans at all, no exercise and lots of burritos instead, Ok….”.
Tough Love Wife-Style
To begin with I would moan to my wife about ‘people’ just being useless. I was giving my clients great advice to build a fitness habit, and none of them would take it. I needed ‘better clients’.
Clients would come and go, making a bit of progress, but eventually tell me they wanted to go it alone, thanks for your help Chris etc.
We wouldn’t get referrals or repeat business — not great for my profits! I had to pay more for marketing to get new clients in the door, more people who wouldn’t follow my (as I saw it) great advice and would leave, etc.
As with many things in life, it was eventually the blunt wisdom of my wife that changed things. Hopefully she doesn’t read this and get a big(ger) head.
I was mid-diatribe one night, as she was trying to watch another one of her Post-Apocalyptic-Dystopia shows (how many can one woman watch?!), and she clearly just wanted me to shut up.
She paused her show, turned to me and said abruptly:
“They aren’t you. They don’t want to be you. They will never devote the same time and effort as you do. What you think is simple is too much for them. They are just busy moms and dads trying to get strong and fit and lose their fat asses”.
Pep talk over. Show un-paused. #burn
We don’t need more information, we need to build simple fitness habits
She made a great point, damn her. People were essentially coming to me for help with building healthy habits, something they’d struggled to do by themselves.
And here I was believing they just lacked information about how to train and what to eat — things that are, let’s face it, widely available for free online.
I needed to understand why people struggled to start building new, healthier habits.
Why didn’t clients do the things they knew they should, to achieve the things they said they wanted to?
I honestly didn’t know. So I started to read more. Great books like The Chimp Paradox (Steve Peters), and The 1% Rule (Tommy Baker), and also books on the Kaizen approach to continuous improvement.
These books together helped me understand why we panic when a goal feels out of reach, and how to take tiny steps in the right direction each day instead, to boost our chances of continually making progress.
Plot-twist: Reading more on these topics made me realize I was JUST AS BAD as my clients were in sticking to ambitious plans, just in the non-fitness areas of my life.
I’d been trying to write a blog for years and had 3 articles and a half-built website to show for it, (and a million excuses for why this was the case) despite putting together plan after slightly-adapted plan for world blog domination.
Like my training clients, I didn’t need another damn plan, I needed to build a habit.
Sneaky steps to build a fitness habit and self-improvement
It is better to take many small steps in the right direction than to try to take a great leap forward only to stumble backward — Chinese Proverb
Having an end goal of having clients training and eating the way they needed to eventually, I needed to figure out the smallest possible steps they could take for the first few weeks to get them on the right path.
If I asked them to completely change their diets overnight they’d rebel, find excuses and eat crap.
If I asked them to train for a couple of hours each week in their own time they’d do next to nothing and complain they’d been crazy busy and tired all week.
They needed me to help them build the right habits, without shaking life up too much. If it felt like too much effort at the outset then they wouldn’t buy in.
Rather than getting frustrated that clients weren’t as committed as me to getting in shape, I needed to be thankful that they were struggling, so that they needed my services! I needed to help with habit building.
I replaced my Big Asks of clients with tiny ones that got them moving in the right direction:
- Instead of “Train for 30 mins at home three times a week”, I told them “Get your trainers on and get out the door, or start doing bodyweight squats and press ups at home. Do it for 2 minutes. If you hate it stop, if it’s going well, keep at it!” — Starting the activity is the hardest part
- Instead of “Learn these 10 new recipes and buy all these superfoods, EAT CLEAN”, I tell them “Start your day with a big glass of water. Eat more veggies at dinner. Quit snacking between meals” — Easy ways to limit calorie intake, stay hydrated and eat a bit healthier
- Instead of “You HAVE to get 8 hours sleep per night minimum”, I tell them “Avoid caffeine from the afternoon onwards and don’t look at your phone in bed” — The less wired you are at bedtime the more likely you’ll sleep longer anyway
Of course those steps aren’t all there is to getting in shape. But it’s a realistic, sustainable start that doesn’t induce panic. Asking too much of clients (and ourselves) before they’re mentally ready to commit so much time and effort is a recipe for throwing in the towel.
Tiny, doable steps — huge success all round
This ‘small-steps’ approach obviously worked for me and my writing, as you’re reading Exhibit A!
I hadn’t been struggling with a lack of desire to write more, I’d been overwhelmed with the feeling of having to become a robotically consistent writer overnight.
Instead of telling myself “Write 2 articles a week for the next year”, then panicking as I couldn’t come up with 104 article ideas, then ditching the whole thing, I needed to learn to just take a step in the right direction every day, just like any small-scale entrepreneur.
More importantly though, for my ability to finance my kids’ constant need for new shoes (!), my training business became crazy busy as clients got in shape (and to borrow my wife’s words “got strong & fit and lost their fat asses”) and referred their friends and family to me. I had more business than I knew what to do with — a nice problem to have.
These positive outcomes for my own writing, my business, and my clients’ health and fitness all came from adopting a sneaky ninja approach to changing behaviors.
When trying to change behaviors, we need to literally creep up on ourselves, commit to taking tiny actions, which over time add up to phenomenal progress.
Getting in shape, or indeed any goal that requires new habits, isn’t about finding the right plan and pressuring ourselves to have the iron clad will to stick to it.
It’s about getting your trainers on and getting out the door.
It’s about opening your laptop and typing a couple of sentences.
It’s about having a big glass of water in the morning.
It’s about exercising for 2 minutes and seeing how it goes.
It’s about small, stupidly easy steps done over and over and over again.
Build the fitness habit over time, don’t strive for the perfect plan.