You are here: Home Training Design Human Behaviour and Exercise Understanding Human Behaviour & Exercise

Understanding Human Behaviour & Exercise

Personal trainers are essentially in the business of 'guiding behaviour change'. This page looks at understanding behaviour change and the five fundamental tasks all PT's must excel at.

What makes up a ‘lifestyle’? – Actions, behaviours and lifestyle

‘It’s all about changing your lifestyle’

If you’re like me, you’ll have heard this phrase more times than you can remember.  It is seemingly a true statement, however, it is a very broad statement.  It’s actually about changing our actions so we 'do today what it is we want to do tomorrow’.

Our existing actions are typical for each and every one of us.  That is, we most often do what we have done before – either because we are comfortable with it or we know what the outcomes will be.

personal%20training%20behavioursThe repetitive nature of our actions allows us to identify our behaviours.  For example, ‘I run each day’, or ‘I eat fruit’.  Because we regularly repeat these actions they can be identified as predictable behaviours.  At school you might have described someone in class as the ‘crazy kid’ or ‘dare devil’ because you had seen their actions repeated often enough to tell you that was a reasonable way to describe the person.

If an action wasn’t repeated consistently we wouldn’t say it was a ‘behaviour’.  In other words, any action repeated often enough, slowly but surely becomes a behaviour.

Often we use a set of behaviours to describe someone’s lifestyle.  For instance, ‘she’s an athlete or ‘he’s an entrepreneur’.  These descriptions conjure up stereotypes of the lifestyles these people lead.   So, a lifestyle can be seen as a set of repeated actions that we call behaviours.


How behaviours form – pain versus pleasure

We use the same actions over and over again because subconsciously we have learnt that the action doesn’t cause undue pain and has acceptable outcomes.  For example we might go to a job we don’t like because we know we can cope and getting paid is a good outcome for us.

We also seek pleasure.  We take actions that will likely help us meet our emotional needs and we will repeat actions that result in some form of emotional satisfaction (as long as we perceive the pain to be worth it).  For example, we may come back to a hairdresser repeatedly because they asked us about ourselves and listened a lot (recognition), made a fuss over what we’d been up to (encouragement), played pleasant music, spoiled us with fancy coffee, gave us our favourite magazine (encouragement), and put us in charge by having us choose our style (power).  The pain of paying a significant sum was not so great that we wouldn’t come back for this pleasurable experience again.


However, our drive to avoid pain typically far outweighs our drive to seek pleasure.  We humans are essentially a safety first, satisfaction second, creature.

When an action we take causes too much pain, we avoid it and replace it with another action immediately – sometimes without conscious thought.  It’s often an instinctive response rather than a logical decision.  This is great in terms of response time but may not result in the right ‘choice’ being made.  An example would be getting really upset and flying off the handle because someone is ‘letting you go’ from your job – rather than asking ‘why’ and working through any possible options.  The first response ‘feels’ right, but if you ‘thought’ about it you may have acted differently.

Every action we take has an immediate effect of either giving us pleasure or pain.  If an action results in the experience of pleasure it is more likely to be repeated.  If an action results in pain, it is less likely to be repeated. 

Here we need clarification.  ‘Pain’ is not physical in this instance.  It is, emotional. Everything we do we attach an emotion to in the brain.personal%20training%20pain%20%26%20pleasure%20scale  I see something, do something, read something, hear something and I have an emotion about it.  So, when we talk about ‘pain’ we are talking about a negative emotion.  It could be feelings of inadequacy, loss, frustration, despair, boredom, indifference etc.

An example would be walking into a gym where no one talked to you and you felt scared and intimidated, and then felt stupid trying to use some of the equipment.  The pain of these emotions makes you less likely to repeat the actions of walking into a gym again.

Even physical pain manifests itself as an emotion as that is how we give everything we experience meaning – for example being sore after a workout could make me happy (if I wanted it and liked the feeling) or frustrated or scared or disappointed (if I didn’t expect, like, or think it was necessary).


What drives our actions – Re-action versus Reason

We often use behaviours ‘automatically’.  These are usually using ‘tried and trusted behaviours’.  Often these behaviours are ‘subconscious’, we don’t actually ‘decide’ what we are going to do, we just do it.  We use what we have learnt before in terms of the pain vs pleasure and simply repeat it.  I call this ‘re-action’.  For example, our shopping routines of where we park, how we walk to the store and what we buy are often ‘automatic’.

We also have the ability to ‘think’ things through.  To ‘reason’.  And this is what makes us ‘reflective and creative’ creatures.  In many instances, despite what we have previously learnt, we do something different because we think the result will be better for us.

personal%20training%20hmmThis is a conscious process and requires the frontal lobes (where rational thought processes take place) of the brain and more time than ‘re-action’.  For example, you usually drive to work but find out the trains are running a lot more frequently, on time and have been refurbished.  So you decide to try taking the train to work for a week to see how it will suit you.

The result of any action can be pleasure or pain, this can reinforce or repel the action.  The key here is that when you are thinking about the outcomes of an action (what happened when you took that action), because you are conscious that you are trying something new, the pleasure and pain are more likely viewed as pros and cons of a particular course of action.  This ‘critical thinking’ loop allows a person to make some judgements of how to tinker with the action next time to get better results, rather than just accept that what happened was ‘as good as it gets’

This process is called a ‘decisional balance sheet’.  What that means is you have two rational sides that you weigh up before making a decision.  Here’s an example for ‘joining a gym’. 


Pro’s (positive things)

Con’s (negative things)

Good equipment


Lots of options (classes, weights, cardio)


Long hours of operation

Access (location/parking, crowding)

Friendly staff

Other members (unfriendly/judging)

Supportive and capable staff


Friends go there



To contrast each side of the model you can say that:

  • The subconscious is full of hopes and dreams, without plans, not shared with others or written down, with no review planned or support in place.
  • The conscious side has goals, with plans, clearly communicated, with a review time and support arranged.

The last thing to mention about this part of the model is that our current ‘habits’ can become barriers when we want to change.  For example, if I want to eat more healthily, my existing habit of buying chocolate when I fill up the car with gas and buying sweets at the movies is going to prove a challenge.  Often it’s our ability to overcome our existing habits and replace them that requires careful planning, effort and support.



When are behaviours formed in childhood?

When you think about our development as humans it is interesting to look at where and when we learn to behave in a certain way.

Before the age of five we operate based on guidance.  If you think of our growth physically (body), emotionally (feelings), socially (relationships) and cognitively (thinking) we seem to develop physically first.  personal%20training%20kids%20%26%20lollipopsEmotionally and socially more gradually, and cognitively we start later and keep developing most of our lives (unless we choose to stop thinking!). 

In our early years we are physically becoming more able.  We’re getting a lot of emotional support from parents, and socially learning to operate within a family.  But we can’t really think (reason) well for ourselves yet, so we learn behaviours from those around us.  By five we are a product of our nurturing as well as our nature. 

personal%20training%20drinkingBy fifteen the behaviour set we learned earlier on (usually from our families) is no longer fitting very well.  Teenagers (as you’ll likely remember) adopt new behaviours that fit their needs.  It can be a difficult task to keep some of the more useful early behaviours whilst the trial and error of ‘teenage decision making’ ensues.

We know 'pain versus pleasure' drives our behaviours and helps us establish a safe and somewhat satisfactory situation early in our lives.  And typically, at an early age, we learn to link pain and pleasure to the actions we’ve taken using those around us to guide us.  We use their response to guide ours.  We use their actions, such as rewards or punishments, to build an initial framework for our behaviours.

The challenge is that as adults we are the sum total of our learned behaviours and sometimes we want to change some of them.

To change behaviours we need to look at how those behaviours are established and how learning takes place.  This will give us a much better insight into how we can help the adults that we typically meet in health clubs to change their behaviours.

How does learning take place in young adults and adults?

How did you learn to clean your teeth, tie your shoes, get dressed, or drive?  You were first aware of it, had a desire to do it, gained knowledge, practised the skill in encouraging situations, and eventually mastered it.  You experienced an outcome that was positive, not too painful and you locked in the skill.

personal%20training%20girl%20in%20fridgeI can give you an example of my three year old daughter, who is keen to do everything and try everything and gets quite upset if she can’t.  She has a massive desire to do whatever mum or dad is doing.  Recently she started watching her breakfast being made.  Within days she wanted to do it (messy!).  We talked her through things as we did them for a few days with her helping where she could - she would fetch the milk, the bowl, the spoon.  At that stage we would pour the milk and heat and then add the cereal.

Eventually (only a few days later) she did everything from start to finish.  We were there to cheer her on, help if the milk bottle was particularly heavy on a given day, and mop up the little spills.

Today she makes her breakfast on automatic pilot – without damage to the surrounds I’m glad to say.  I could list a dozen other things she learnt to do in that month from puzzles, to opening letters, to doing her shoes up etc.  All of it was done through the same process.  See it, want to do it, understand the basics and practice it.  Experience positive results, with no pain, and hey presto – learning has taken place and a behaviour is formed.

The above is an example of learning at work.  It’s a mix of her mimicking (the mimicking centres of the brain are very early to develop), thinking, getting positive reinforcement and not experiencing much pain.   Once established just about everything is automatic.  There is no need for us to change the way we make our breakfast or do our teeth unless we experience pain.  So we function reactively, simply carrying out pre programmed responses that our brain has tucked away in its network.

Following is a diagram that illustrates the stages of learning:


As we become more independent, self aware, confident and capable we will learn more by ourselves or with peers rather than with parents and teachers.  How we get the information (in what form, who from, when, how quickly) might change but the stages of learning do not.

If we accept that adults learn and change this way then it raises some very interesting questions and opportunities. 

If to create change, you have to;

  • Think about what you are currently doing that isn’t working,
  • Decide on a better option,
  • Try that option knowing you won’t get it right first time (see conscious incompetence to competence as a continuum)
  • Keep working at it until you succeed
  • Repeat it often enough that it becomes a habit


What would a person supporting you need to be good at?  What sort of environment would you need to be in?  What would a business you’d pay good money to for help be supplying you with?

It seems that as a personal trainer, if we want to help people change their lives, we need to be able to:

  1. Build a relationship with them that allows them to discuss their goals and the reasons for them (why they want to change).
  2. Question and listen to help them decide on changes in behaviour that might suit them
  3. Make practical recommendations that incorporate the person’s preferences along with our professional judgement
  4. Set up a support system for the person that allows for failure and delivers support at the right time, in the right way to help the person succeed
  5. Set up facilities and environments that are inherently positive, enjoyable and have a low ‘hassle’ (i.e. are easy to use)


There are other things that we can do, but these five alone jump out if we think that our role is truly ‘to help people change’ rather than simply to prescribe and offer exercise options for the masses.

Robert says:
Jan 15, 2016 09:50 PM

Some good tips here, Most i'v read and used before however there is nothing better than having little reminders like this thanks.

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