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What Drives Your Client to Be Well

The results our clients get from fitness training or wellness coaching are not just a higher level of health, fitness, and well-being. They also include change: change in behavior, thinking, and feeling. Yet, change is not always easy. A critical ingredient is potent and lasting motivation that comes from within and is based on immediate benefits or long-term rewards.

To be human is to be ambivalent about changing something that one has struggled with for years or even decades, whether it is learning how to fully relax, loving to exercise regularly, enjoying veggies as much as ice cream, or listening to someone you care about with undistracted, mindful presence. The amount of energy consumed by this state of chronic contemplative struggle would fuel a small car. Do I or don’t I? Why can’t I just get it done? Surely someone will invent THE quick fix if I wait long enough. What a loser I am for being unable to stay motivated. How come I am not driven to be fit and well?

Clients choose a “change supporter” in hiring a trainer or wellness coach in hopes of getting beyond the struggle. The rationale for this choice includes “I need someone to motivate me. I need help in staying motivated.” Yet as helping professionals we need to be careful to not take on ownership and responsibility for our client’s motivation. It is not our job to motivate our clients. Instead, it is our job to help our clients identify and sustain their own motivation.

In Dan Pink’s new book Drive, he talks about the importance of internal or intrinsic motivation as what truly drives or motivates us to choose to change and act on it. When the motivation to change comes from within, based on heartfelt desires, rather than via external sources, like a financial incentive or urging by one’s spouse or parent, the likelihood of sustained success is dramatically improved.

“Some doors open only from the inside.” — An ancient Sufi saying

There is a wonderful story in the best- selling book on flow titled Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience, written by Mihaly Czikszentmihalyi,1 (say Cheek-sent- me-hi a few times to get it down) about a woman with severe schizophrenia in a mental hospital. Her medical team had failed to help her improve. The team decided to follow Czikszentmihalyi’s protocol to identify activities in which she was motivated, engaged, and felt better. A timer went off throughout her day signaling her to complete a mini-survey on her mood, energy, engagement, etc. Her report showed that her best experience was manicuring her fingernails. So the medical team arranged for her to be trained as a manicurist. She began to offer manicures at the hospital and eventually became well enough to be discharged. She went on to live an independent life as a manicurist.

For this woman, tending to fingernails and toenails drove her well. This is an amazing story exemplifying the power of motivation when it is intrinsic. The schizophrenic woman found the task of doing manicures to be enjoyable for its own sake, with the immediate reward of a pretty result and a happy customer. It is also likely that manicuring was something she was naturally good at, tending with care to the myriad details of shaping, polishing, and painting nails. By repeating this engaging and enjoyable task over and over again, her motivation and confidence grew by leaps and bounds, allowing her to leave the protective cage of the hospital and embark upon an independent life.

The easiest way to help clients drive themselves well is to help them find activities they love to do, which use their strengths and are reinforcing, allowing them to feel better immediately or soon afterward. For example, helping a client find a way to move her body vigorously that she does not want to miss. Or supporting her efforts to discover healthy recipes that she has fun cooking. Or engage in mindfulness practices or before-bed relaxation techniques that she is good at and quickly lift the weight of the day. Unfortunately for most of us, the activities that drive us to wellness are not intrinsically rewarding. We may never learn to love to cook healthful dinners or work out in a gym or stick to sparkling water and crudités without dip at a party.

The second most powerful source of motivation that drives human behavior is what Deci and Ryan, developers of self-determination theory, call “integrated regulation.” This type of motivation also comes from within, but relates to doing something because you desire its longer-term outcome, not immediate enjoyment and gratification. For example, your client gets his workouts done because they help him avoid gaining more weight. He goes to the extra effort to cook a healthful dinner to be a role model for his kids. He drinks less wine so that he feels more energetic in the morning. He lifts weights in order to build stronger bones to avoid the osteoporosis that led his grandfather to stoop.

This second-best form of motivation requires more diligent attention. Your client needs to make a mindful, conscious choice to take the more difficult path at a given moment for a payoff that is not immediate. The easy choice is beyond tempting. Warming up a pizza rather than cooking a stir-fry from scratch. Skipping the trip to the gym, even if it is in the basement, in favor of sleeping longer. Answering a few more emails even though they are not life threatening and ignoring the dumbbells next to the desk ready for a set of bicep curls or deadlifts. Your client needs to shake her brain out of automatic pilot, summon and appreciate a picture of the desired longer-term gain, and consciously choose the healthier path over the immediate craving.

It is clear from the evidence that there is not much point in your client getting off the fence and making another earnest attempt to change unless he has packed his motivational bag with activities that he loves to do for their own sake, or those he believes are can’t-miss investments – leading to positive returns for health and well-being, as well as performance at home and at work.

Originally published in ACSM Certified News Coaching Column

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