You are here: Home Training Design Human Behaviour and Exercise How Do People ‘Change’?

How Do People ‘Change’?

In this page we look at the 'stages of change' model which shows that when people change their behaviour they move through different stages. Knowing what to do to be most effective at each stage is extremely important for all you PT's.

When a new member arrives at a fitness club they have often gone through a number of ‘stages’ of change already.  Rarely does someone wake up one day and just decide to join a club.  It’s most likely a process that happens over time and is driven by a desire for some sort of change in themselves and their lives.  It may be that they want to change how their body looks or functions or how they feel about themselves.  They may have been thinking about making changes for some time and finally, due to their circumstances and their feelings, they have joined a club and want to get started.

This is just one of the reasons why being a warm, pro-active, inviting and professional personal trainer can make your club (and your PTbusiness) highly successful.  Remember, you are not delivering an exercise programme or session; you are treating members to a great experience with you that they will want to come back to.


What are the ‘stages of change’ a member might go through?

The stages of change model proposes that people move from

□   Not thinking they need to change (the pre-contemplation stage)

□   Considering the pro’s and con’s of changing (contemplation)

□   Deciding change would be desirable and looking at options (planning)

□   Choosing an option and getting organised to do it (preparation)

□   Doing it (action)

□   The old behaviour is gone and the new one is in place consistently (termination)

□   The old behaviour has come back and the person is at a different stage again (relapse)

□   the new behaviour has become a real habit and it would feel unusual to ‘not do it’ (maintenance)


Once a person is in ‘action’ it is thought that they will put about 3-6 months worth of effort and focus into changing that area of their lives.  This correlates well with research into retention in fitness clubs.  It showed that after six months of a membership it is extremely (1-2% of the time you can do it) hard to change a person’s attendance patterns.  It seems ‘action’ for most people is a window of opportunity that they only open up for a period of time.

This makes sense as you will see later that unsuccessful change is quite challenging for someone’s self esteem (the regard someone has for themselves).  So to continue when you’re not making headway and your personal feelings are taking a hammering is not smart.  To a degree, disengagement (giving up) after a period of attempting change, is quite logical.



At each of these stages a person can be influenced and encouraged to move forward to the next stage, or discouraged and moved backward.  When someone moves backward it is called ‘relapse’. 


How can I tell which ‘stage of change’ someone is at?

When people are at different stages they say and do different things.  Here are some examples of things people might say at each stage.



What people might be saying…



What would I exercise for! There’s no need, I’m perfectly healthy.


I’m wondering what I should do about my lungs feeling so heavy when I chase my kids around, even for a short while. Wouldn’t mind a little more tone in these muscles too.


I’d like to get a bit fitter, it’s just finding something I can fit in, that I’d stick at – maybe something with friends that focuses on my flabby bits.


I’m going to start pump classes in the school holidays with my neighbour, I just need to get some shoes sorted and we’re off!


The gym is great.  I’ve been twelve times this month and although I was quite sore the first time I think I’m feeling better already, and my arms are definitely stronger.


Heavens I don’t know why I didn’t start exercising years ago.  It’s great and now I’m thinking of doing another class for a bit of variety too.


I’ve been doing weights for a few years and although not much changes at the club I still enjoy the instructor helping me push myself and I can still make progress.  I’m doing one circuit a week too now.


What can you do as a personal trainer with people at each stage of change?

Because each stage of change is a little different the approach you take as a personal trainer is also different. 

At each stage peoples’ willingness to take action increases.  You should note that a person’s willingness to take action is made up of a mix of their belief that they can do it (they have time, resources, ability), and that the result is one they desire.  So to move a person from one stage to another your aim really is to affect their understanding of:

□      What am I like?

□      What can be done about that?

□      What might be best for me?

□      How can I do that?

□      How can I adjust this to better suit me?

□      How can I make sure I keep this up or change to another suitable option?


The following table summarises the approach that can be taken at each stage of change.  Remember, that the people who are exercising at your club wont be at a stage before ‘action’, and some will be in ‘maintenance’.  Some non-attendees may have relapsed to a stage before action.  Otherwise the people you meet in the earlier stages of change will most likely be friends, family, acquaintances or the general public.


Stage of Change

What you can do or say…


Raise awareness of norms.  Give information about typical levels of exercise.  Don’t push it, don’t preach or judge


Explore.  Ask lots of open questions and help the person reinforce what is normal, where they are at, and why that has happened.  Don’t push them to action; it takes time for people to get to grips with things.


Discuss options.  Ask questions and investigate the person’s needs with them in detail.  Try to help them learn from their past and identify as many options as you can that may suit them.


Choose and organise.  Refine the options with the person to the most logical and practical.  Make sure they choose and they identify the option they think is most likely to last.


Refine and review.  Ask the person about their experiences, what they like and don’t like and help them tailor the exercise to suit.  A high frequency of contact, support and encouragement is required from everyone involved with a person at this stage of change.


Review and reinforce.  Investigate with the person what supports / helps the new behaviour and what challenges it.  Use ‘what ifs’ to future proof and plan for disruptions.  Look for an extension or options to counter boredom


Explore.  Discuss why it hasn’t worked, help them ‘not blame’ themselves and encourage new effort under different circumstances.  Those circumstances should be discussed and chosen by the person with your support so that the highest likelihood of success is achieved and the barriers are avoided.

Registration content image - exercise program templates.

PT Program Template

FREE Download

Make writing personal training programs easy with these custom designed exercise templates, and keep your clients focused and progressing.

Link to PT Program Exercise Templates

Registration content image - client back care guide.

Client Back Care Guide

FREE Download

Pain-free clients are happy clients. Claim your free copy of the client back care guide today. Your clients will thank you for it!

Link to Client Back Care Guide