Changing Behavior

The Real Reason Why Accomplishing Fitness Goals Is So Difficult – Science of Change

It was a challenging day. I had been working with Maggy (name changed) for 2 or 3 years. Over the course of time I thought I had done everything to help her accomplish her fat loss goals. I had given her nutrition tips, advice, templates, whole nutrition plans (provided by a dietitian service I employ, etc.). I had even offered additional training sessions for free and suggested that it would really help if she pushed herself more in training. She just shrugged it off and said she did not like to sweat.

On that fateful day I decided to do measurements again. Prior, we had stopped doing so, because there was really no point, since she seemed unable to follow any my advice.

Don’t get me wrong, she had accomplished a lot, just not losing all the body fat she had wanted to get rid of: Her back pain was as good as gone, & she was stronger and fitter than she had ever been.

But when we did measurements, it showed that her weight had changed only minimally, her body fat level had dropped but it was not what it should have been after two years of personal training and spending nearly $9000.

Something was different though after these measurements.

For some reason these measurements were an eye opener to her. For one I had trained her daughter for six weeks during the summer. Her daughter had followed my advice to the letter, and worked hard. Secondly her daughter’s transformation had been phenomenal, she looked great, felt great and lost a lot of body fat. Maggy was excited for her daughter and disappointed in herself when I showed her that her changes were minimally, though.

Over the course of the next 8 weeks she made more progress than she had ever made before. She was dedicated. Her body transformed.

What changed? Why did it take so long?

We are creatures of habit. We all know it. We like our routines. Many of us don’t like change. But even when we want to change, we are not always able to do so. Markway PhD wrote in her blog on Psychology today 7/14/2013:

“People in the precontemplation stage haven’t begun to think about change. They may not realize they have a problem, they may not know change is possible, or they may have given up hope. As a result, they aren’t quite ready to overcome their distress. It’s common for someone in precontemplation to say: This is just how I am. I don’t have a problem. What’s the point?”

That is a powerful statement. Many of us are afraid of change or the prospect of failing…maybe yet again.

The reason is simple: We don’t know what it will bring and if we are capable of succeeding, or if it is possible, period. A good example is running one mile in under 4 min. For a long time it was believed impossible.

Sir Roger Bannister was the first one to run one mile in under 4 min in 1954. Many had tried but it was commonly believed to be impossible. After he managed to run it within the same year someone else beat his time by more than one second and many have since.  In the second case, being afraid of failing again, we just don’t want that crushing experience yet one more time to fail, to feel like failures or losers.

The faith “it is possible” is key

For Maggy seeing that her daughter could do it might have stimulated her belief in herself. It also might have sparked her competitiveness not to be outdone by her daughter. We don’t know for sure. But she went from a contemplative state (thinking about doing something) to an action state as if someone had flipped a switch.

Pelletier et al. (2004) wrote that it makes sense that the successful and sustained diet depends on the individual’s willingness to change. Lasting behavioral change is also based on the result of persistent self-regulation. In addition to that

According to their study people who are more self-regulatory, meaning the motivation of their actions is based on what they really want versus what others want or impose on them (externally regulated), have a higher chance of success. Simply if I tell you to lose weight you won’t make it, unless you can really make the reason your own. As an example: One of my clients was told by her doctor if she was not changing her lifestyle should would be dead in 4-5 years. That was a huge wake up call for her and she ended up completely changing her life for the better.

If you want to make any personal changes like losing weight, you need to do it for your own reasons.

The plot thickens. It is obviously not as easy as it first looked as in “Just Do it” (Nike’s famous motto).

So far we have only discussed the matter of how we feel about change but what does the physiological side, specifically our brain have to say to the matter?

Wait, we are not done, your brain has something to say in the matter

I read a good article not too long ago about how our brain likes to plan for our future self. Why is that? Well, planning is easy, because it does not require immediate action or change. We all have that experience for some it is fitness, finances, or name any other area.

Planning is easy, execution is not. Our brain likes planning for the future, but when it comes to our present our brain likes instant gratification and it makes perfect sense!

If I have to get my butt out of bed every morning to be in shape 6 months from now, then it is understandable that hitting the snooze button is so much easier, since it is right there and the instant gratification is immediate => I get to nap a little longer in my cozy, warm bed. Now we couple this with having to cook healthy foods or making good food choices etc. that all take time before having a visible effect, and we create a perfect storm: Non-compliance is just too easy, faster and more satisfying in the short term.

Does that mean though that the people who choose that path are lazy, don’t want to work hard, or just simply don’t want it enough?

I don’t think so. Many of them work really hard in other areas, are dedicated and passionate. I think that most of the time we struggle. I know former and current clients who have this fight with themselves every day. I have had people come in with tears in their eyes apologizing that they had “bad” food, did not eat “right”, or could not get up to exercise.

They often punish themselves harder than anyone else. They “fat shame” themselves, like one of them once called it. They are their harshest critics. Their inner voices are hard, critical and mean. If we heard them talk to someone else like that, we would probably intervene and ask them what they were thinking.

Where does that struggle come from? How come it is so hard for some of us to make that change?

Many factors play into it. They might be afraid of failure, not recognize or truly accept that something needs to be done, they might be comfortable. Change is the opposite. Change brings insecurity, it brings the unknown. It might bring danger to our self-perception if we fail. So it might be better to just not try at all.


It seems clear now that change is complicated and that powerful urges are involved. So how do people change? Prochaska & DiClemente outlined the different stages of change in their following model:


Recognize where you are in the process of change

In 1983 two smart fellows named James Prochaska, Ph.D. and Carlo DiClemente developed a model on how change is realized in human beings. It is a pretty ingenious model and it takes the pressure off people and gives personal trainers like me a tool to figure out where people are currently in their willingness to change.

Just because someone walks through the door does not mean they actually want to make a change.

Stages that have to happen with personal training and online training

So, what does all of this mean for you and me?


  1. Pre-Contemplative Stage (no action for about 6 months): You might not see the need for a change. Someone might not realize that they have a problem or are in denial. If you have high cholesterol you might feel immune, if you are obese you might have simply given up after trying multiple times and failing.
  2. Contemplative Stage (actions taken within about 6 months): Here you are feeling uncertain about changing. You might feel a sense of loss and deprivation despite the possible benefits. Possible hurdles and obstructions are contemplated and assessed (e.g. work, spouses, stress, schedule, etc.)
  3. Preparation Stage (intends to take actions within 30 days): Here preparations are made to go ahead with changes i.e. small changes might be made like sampling whole foods vs fast food, etc. This usually precedes major changes.
  4. Action Stage (has changed behavior for less than 6 months): Time to go, time to do something. In my field that can create problems though. If someone has not been going through the other stages, they might still fail (see New Year Resolutions failures). Positive encouragement is crucial at this time! Any action is positive, no matter how small.
  5. Maintenance & Relapse Stage (has made changes for longer than 6 months): You might cycle many times through all stages before a persistent change occurs. Negative feedback and small relapses in progress can easily throw you off your program at first.

Being Stuck Sucks

If you are stuck in the first two stages then you are in good company, many people are.  Your physician might have tried to convince you again and again. Your trainer (me for example) might have done the same thing. It does not work! You cannot convince people of anything if they are not open to it.

If you don’t believe it, try to convince someone of a different political or religious view, it does not work!

It is more important to be compassionate with yourself and to receive compassion and empathy from others, possibly ask yourself some thought provoking questions. Being critical does not work (otherwise we would not be stuck)


  • How do you know when it is time to make [insert your change]
  • Have you tried to change in the past…


If you are further down the road in the contemplative phase questions like:

  • Why do you want to change this time?
  • What would keep you from changing?
  • What were the reasons for not changing?


You can be stuck in those two phases for years and you can easily figure out by your answers when someone asks you about the topic your answer is: Yes, but…

Change does not come easy, to most anyone. Asking these questions above, familiarizing yourself with the topic and seeking emotional and logistical support is crucial.


Summary of Nine Processes of Change


Prochaska et al (1995) summarized the processes that we go through when we are going successfully through a self changing process.


  1. Becoming aware, realizing that I have a problem (e.g. I have a chocolate addiction, I see you laugh, trust me, it created some major dysfunction in my life for a while)
  2. Social liberation by using any options given to you by your environment to begin / continue your journey to a healthier you (e.g. using healthy meals, etc. or in my case replacing it with a healthier chocolaty alternative)
  3. Emotional arousal (…you have a dirty mind, not that kind). You are having a deep emotional experience in connection with the issue, (e.g. not being able to play with your child and huffing after a view steps because of overweight, in my case: smuggling chocolate by my wife like a delinquent because I was embarrassed eating it. ).
  4. Self Re-evaluation: how are you going to be once you change your behavior, you might you be? In my case was feeling not guilty, have better teeth, better health and less like a fraud as a trainer
  5. Commitment: First you have to commit to yourself and then commit to others, being public. in my case: I announced it publicly to friends and clients and everyone who did or did not want to hear about it, lol.
  6. Countering: Replacing your unhealthy behaviors with healthy ones. Talking to a psychologist instead of drowning yourself in food and alcohol, or choosing a walk outside over a stroll to the frozen pizza section, for me I had to quit and allowed myself to eat as much of a healthy alternative as I wanted…for about 2 weeks.
  7. Environmental control, “Action” you are taking charge and change your environment to fit your new healthy lifestyle, getting rid of alcohol, fast food, “Debbie Downers”….
  8. Reward yourself works better than punishing yourself. Self praise yourself for being successful or just simply taking a step into the right direction. In my case: that was one of the hardest steps for me.
  9. Create new relationships that support your new goals or ask friends and family to help you.


How the fitness industry fails you!

The fitness industry is full of fitness memes, motivational quotes and platitudes all telling us that we just need to get our shit together and get with the program. It is all willpower, discipline, etc. They tell us, that we if we really wanted it, we would make it happen. The consequence is self loathing when we fail, and pity from those that succeed. You can clearly tell by now that this is complete BS and that it is much more complicated than that.

Easy Does It

I listened to an interesting podcast once that talked about  how a company got more people to work out. They made the change easy and progressive. The goal was to get people to work out.

Here is what they did:

  1. Put your workout clothes out, no need to work out, just lay them on a table. Repeat for a couple of days
  2. Repeat the first step then add putting them on, if you feel like it go work out, if not, don’t.
  3. Repeat 1,2. and add going in front of the door
  4. Repeat 1,2.3 add…

You get the idea. Make it easy, make it so easy that they cannot really fail and then slowly progress.

I talked to an old client and good friend of mine recently. She had the same struggles. She was really gung ho though and I offered to write her a training plan and nutrition plan. I messed up, big time. I went overboard. Training scheduled for 4-5 days a week, detailed nutrition plan, etc. Total system overload. I failed her. I took her enthusiasm and completely forgot that planning is one thing and execution is another. I should have basically implemented a slow twelve step program. Maybe she would have had more success. Coming back to that company getting people to exercise. They were more successful than many other programs in getting people to work out.

So if you struggle with something then maybe you need to start small. Make micro changes. Changes that are so easy that you cannot fail at it. Anything counts. This might appear silly or stupid to you but consider this. The path that many have followed so far. Diving in like mad, followed by inevitably falling off the wagon, self hatred and criticism has not worked either. Maybe it is time to start slow & small. It is like the saying goes: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time.

We have clients like L. or T. who jump into their program with both feet and just do it. Most of us don’t Many of our clients use a more gradual approach. How about improving just one meal of the day. Forget going to the gym. Just improve one meal per day for a week or two and progress from there. Baby steps, baby steps, baby steps.


How it all connects

  • Change is complex. Find out and in which state of change you are in
  • Have compassion for yourself and allow yourself to go through all phases. Ask thought provoking questions or have a professional do it.
  • Realize that we are not all willpower. Our body reacts to what we want to do and rewards us sometimes when doing the wrong thing.
  • Apply the 9 Processes of Change see above
  • Easy is the key. Find the changes that yield the most results and represent the smallest hurdle. For some this might be taking fish oil, while cooking their food or exercise might be it for someone else.
  • Forgive yourself when cycling through and relapsing. It is a human condition.



from Smoking, L. L., & Cessation, A. (2000). A ‘stages of change’ approach to helping patients change behavior. Am Fam Physician, 61(5), 1409-1416.

Pelletier, L. G., Dion, S. C., Slovinec-D’Angelo, M., & Reid, R. (2004). Why do you regulate what you eat? Relationships between forms of regulation, eating behaviors, sustained dietary behavior change, and psychological adjustment. Motivation and Emotion, 28(3), 245-277.

Prochaska, J. O., Norcross, J. C., & DiClemente, C. C. (1995). Changing for good. New York: Avon Boo

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