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Tracking Client Progress

Today we explore how to work with a client who has a strong desire to lose weight and has agreed to track her daily caloric intake and energy expenditure over the past two weeks. You sit down to review her chart she sent you before your next session and quickly suspect she is under reporting her daily caloric intake and over reporting her daily energy expenditure.

Clients more often than not engage fitness professionals to help them lose weight, a primary reason for getting fit, strong, and flexible. In our larger world, where we face a tidal wave of weight gain, the exception, not the rule, is for a client to succeed in losing weight and keeping it off. So let’s first acknowledge that this is a very challenging goal for you and your clients. Start with a beginner’s mind, assuming that you truly have no idea about what will work or whether your client will be successful.

One method that has been proven helpful to those who have lost weight is daily journaling of eating and exercise activities, online or by hand on a printout you provide. The starting point in a weight loss endeavor is often to help a client get a snapshot of the balance of intake and expenditure, raise self-awareness of eating patterns, and help you spot obvious areas for tweaking and improvement. Approximately 5% of human beings were born with a “signature” character strength of self-regulation, which means this group is talented at self-monitoring, self-managing, and self-adjusting rapidly when needed. Some of them are aligned with a movement called “the quantified self,” gaining self-knowledge through numbers according to the tag-line at The left prefrontal cortex, the brain’s CEO of a good self-regulator, enjoys collecting and evaluating data and loves to make decisions based on solid analysis.

I happen to be one of those precious few as I weigh myself daily using a scale with 0.1 lb increments, and immediately change my eating habits if my weight rises by a half-pound, even if that day happens to be a family celebration. For people like me, perhaps you, tracking and recording information like energy balance is an interesting and engaging challenge; we take pride in doing it accurately, checking calorie charts carefully, asking lots of questions, and we enjoy reporting our results and observations. The simple act of recording our intake and expenditure can lead us to lasting changes in our eating and exercise patterns as well as sustainable weight loss. Unfortunately 5% is a small minority.

What happens to those of us who aren’t good at self-regulation, who dread tracking and reporting things like eating habits, medical information, and finances? When you are asked or decide yourself to take on a task that you aren’t good at, it’s not fun, it drains your energy, you are easily distracted, and your performance isn’t great. The polar opposite of self-regulation is the strength of living in the moment, indulging your impulses, eating what you want, being spontaneous, being creative, and relying on your “gut” to make decisions.

Someone who is not good at self-regulation, or whose self-regulating brain region is exhausted or stressed out with life demands, may not pay close attention to filling out your beautiful energy balance chart, may take shortcuts, or miss recording important information, make mistakes, or even hide the real data from you and/or themselves.

Hence, you find yourself in a difficult situation. You don’t want to start down a negative path by questioning or criticizing your client’s tracking and recording skills and efforts. Yet you can’t really trust the data as a basis for your recommendations. A part of you feels frustrated and impatient because your client didn’t deliver what you hoped, and make it easy for you to provide an exercise prescription based on established evidence based practices. So how do you move this partnership forward?

1.    LET GO OF IMPATIENCE AND FRUSTRATION First get yourself into a positive, curious, and non-judgmental mindset, and set aside any frustration or impatience that will instantly impair your partnership with your client. If you show even a speck of judgment or disappointment, your client will withdraw, perhaps already feeling badly that she didn’t do a great job on her tracking homework and now you made her feel worse.


Explore your client’s experience with completing the energy balance chart in order to help her gain self-awareness. View it as a starting experiment, an opportunity to figure out what the best next step would be. Was it a helpful exercise? Was it challenging? Was it boring? Did she do it immediately or wait for a few days and try to remember all the food she ate and activities she completed? Did she take her time or rush to put something, anything, in each of the boxes? What did she learn? What might work better?

Who knows what your client will say and where she will land, but she will appreciate that you were totally focused and engaged, without assumptions and judgment, on her welfare, her efforts, her strengths and weaknesses, and what would work best as next steps. The outcome is a mystery until it emerges. Maybe she will realize that she forgot about recording important information such as her snacks, or miscalculated the number of calories in a food type, and decide to have another go at filling in your chart. Or maybe she’ll decide that instead she’d like to replace her junk food snacks with fruit and nuts, or eat oatmeal and a boiled egg instead of a doughnut for breakfast, as a simple starting point.

One of the best things about being a coach is that it is never boring and predictable. Everyone finds his/her own path with our intent and creative input. It would be great if the research gave us the answers, such as completing energy balance charts as an essential starting point.

Yet, how dull our work would be if a standard formula worked every time.

Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column

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