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A Healthy Approach to Behaviour Change and Living

Why do so many people start and then quickly drop out of their exercise program? Its easy to understand when you consider how our actions are shaped by beliefs and references. You absolutely must consider these as a trainer - your success depends upon it!

If you haven’t already done so then please read the page ‘Understanding human behaviour and exercise’ prior to reading this otherwise some of this content may not make perfect sense!

The underlying idea with a healthy approach to changing behaviour is that if we only use one type of thinking process (re-active or reasoned) then we may suffer.  In one case we will simply become reactive to the environment (stuck in a rut and unable to change) and in the other obsessed with analysing everything, (bogged down and without spontaneity). 

Essentially a healthy and ‘well’ person uses both types of thought but uses reasoned thinking to direct change when needed and re-action to maintain the status quo (as long as it’s not too painful) and makes life easy.

Let’s recap the first two levels of the model that follows (and was introduced in the ‘Understanding human behaviour and exercise’ page).



A recap of the ‘re-action’ side of the model

Reaction you can think of as the automatic side that simply takes a set of stimuli (situation), looks for an internal reference (i.e. what has happened before), and then produces an action that it has learnt.  That is the subconscious at work.  The subconscious will get you to feel hungry at certain times, clean your hands, avoid harm, love the smell of home, and keep on keeping on.  This is the side of the equation that is re-actionary and usually emotionally ingrained. 

When some fitness clubs sell memberships they often want a prospective member to be emotional and work the sale so that people ‘buy, to help avoid pain’.  They do this by talking about the prospective member’s pain (what brings you here today, what isn’t working for you, what do you need to change), and the relief they could achieve through joining, plus the pleasure of exercise and how happy it would make them.  Eventually if there is enough emotion the prospective member will join, no matter whether they rationally couldn’t use the club, afford it, attend the club, or enjoy the exercise. 

Advertisers focus on this type of reaction all the time.  They flick up pictures of beautiful things and say ‘buy our product’ at the same time.  Our brains are very open when we are emotional and form associations in thousandths of a second.  So a good ad, repeated, will take little time to make an impression.  Think about it.  Have you ever changed beers?  Craved chocolate?  Gone to the Candy Bar once you’re in the movie and the ad reminded you? personal%20training%20total%20gym

The re-action side of the equation is a necessary part, but isn’t great at directing real change.  It can cause whimsical attempts at massive change in the heat of the moment (such as buying an exercise ‘gimmick’ product off an infomercial), but lasting change rarely comes from this type of approach. 

Very occasionally, when linked to massive pain, cathartic change may be achieved through this process.  This is usually when people have hit rock bottom.  Even then it is hugely difficult.  Just look at “the biggest loser” which is built on the contestants’ desire to avoid pain, has a massive support network, and still struggles to help people make or maintain change.

The other emotion is pleasure.  But pleasure doesn’t seem to be as strong a driver of action.  How many people, including yourself, actually seek out pleasure exclusively?  How many people do you know go to jobs they don’t enjoy because they fear the pain of not having money, being able to pay the bills, being able to go the movies.  Again, pain is necessary and motivates more strongly than pleasure. 

When you think of ‘pain’ as the low end of a scale and ‘pleasure’ as the higher end, together you could say they function as a type of built in ‘thermostat’.  Within sports psychology there are cases discussed where athletes are playing really well (lots of pleasure) and then undermine themselves by saying to themselves ‘oh, I wonder why I’m playing so well.  It probably won’t last.’  And if things aren’t going well (some pain) they are saying ‘man, I can play better than this!  I’ve got to buck my ideas up!  When we perform outside our expectations we seem to naturally wind our thermostat back to where we believe it should be. 

Some of the keys to being successful with clients then is to make sure you keep their thermostat (expectations) up and their limiting beliefs in check.


A recap of the ‘reasoned’ side of the model

The reasoned, reflective thinking side asks, ‘what has happened, how do I feel about it, what did I want to feel, what do I want to do about it?’personal%20training%20conscious%20thinking

Conscious, rational thought is by far the most powerful tool we have at our disposal in any area of life.  It allows us to balance the pros and cons of an action before we attempt it, take directed and considered action, review the outcomes, and modify our actions to improve results.  What a brilliant thing to have.  If only we used it more.

Now I know there are deeper things operating than this ‘just think about it’ system I have outlined and we’ll get on to those, but for the time being just imagine if you firstly set a higher thermostat (i.e. raised your expectations of yourself), and then used rational, reflective processes to adjust your actions to reach that level.  It is possible. 

So the actions that when repeated form our behaviours and lifestyles are driven either; reactively by the subconscious, pre programmed, emotional mind, or reflectively through the active, conscious, and rational mind.  Try to remember that ideally it will be driven by a bit of both.


What role do ‘beliefs’ play in shaping our actions?

Now we’re going to look at identifying where those ‘actions’ come from.  The control of actions is by either reasoned thought or re-action.  But even reasoned thought uses a person’s perceptions to decide ‘what is rational/reasonable for me?’  So this next layer in the model is all about our beliefs and the references we have that support our beliefs based on our values and feeling of our self.


Our beliefs dictate our actions.  For instance if I believe exercising will make me look good, attract a ‘mate’, keep me healthy and is not painful or unpleasant, then it is likely I will exercise.  If I believe that exercise is difficult, painful, and I don’t have a chance of continuing anyway, I’ll never start. 

The interesting thing about beliefs is that we have empowering beliefs and limiting beliefs.  I think you know which is which from the ones above. 


What role do ‘references’ and ‘values’ play in supporting and creating beliefs?

We form beliefs using either our personal values or the values of others, plus references.  

Everyday we act based upon our values and those of the people around us.  If we have a personal value of integrity we may work hard and make sure we deliver on our promises.  If we value honesty we may always tell the truth.  If we value understanding we will expect to be accepted by others and in turn we will do the same.

What’s interesting is that a lot of our values are formed and re-formed over time as we become more ‘cognitively able’.  That is, as we became able to ‘think for ourselves’.  Ask any parent of a teenager and they will tell you how hard it is when this happens and how behaviours can vary widely through this process.  As an example, a three year old loves learning, helping, doing jobs with their parents.  The same child at twelve my shrink at the thought of even being seen with their parents, and avoids helping, doing ‘chores’ or spending time reading and learning.

Once settled though it seems our ‘personal values’ for our adult lives are somewhat stagnant although sometimes very large life events (divorce, children, loss) can cause us to reflect deeply enough that some of our values are changed.

personal%20training%20female%20weightlifterA reference either supports our belief or undermines it.  For example if your belief is that weight training is only for the boys and then you see lean women lifting heavy weights, the reference challenges your current belief.  In other cases references will support your belief.  For example if you think exercise makes you look good and you see a trim and rather fetching jogger whip by then that reference will reinforce your belief.

References can be classified as actual; that is it happened to us and we experienced it, or virtual; where the reference happened to someone else or was only imagined by us.  The significance is that some of the beliefs we have may have been formed through virtual references and other peoples’ values.

An example might be not starting your own business because your parents told you business was risky (although they have not tried it) and they harped on about people going bankrupt or others just being darn lucky to have made it, all in order to discourage/protect you.  As a result you may never go into your own business even though you really want to!

So, we take action based on our beliefs (what we expect will happen).  And our beliefs dictate what we expect to happen when we take an action.  Our beliefs can come from personal values or learned values (others) which can be supported or undermined by actual or virtual references.

We have these two systems so that we can function in the real world.  After all, you don’t want to have to learn everything yourself, and it is good to have some virtual references, ‘such as fighting is bad’, even if you’ve never been in a fight! 

So the way we are set up is practical but we do need to make sure we control the most important beliefs we have, and that we act according to our personal values.  Otherwise we may end up with actions that we will feel very uncomfortable with.  Have you ever been asked by an employer to do something you didn’t agree with – but you ‘had’ to do it or you might be reprimanded?

We tend not to question our own beliefs much if we respond reactively.  Typically we just like to ‘get on with it’ and only when things really don’t feel right to us do we start to question ‘why am I feeling like this’ or ‘how can I change this’.  This is the pain vs pleasure situation.  You are doing something that is causing you pain, and as the pain builds, you become more aware of it and start to think about it more. 

Again, this is practical.  We need to attend to things in our lives that ‘don’t fit’.  The more something ‘doesn’t fit’ the more pain we feel, the more important it becomes, the more promptly we want to do something about it. 

An example would be wanting to lose weight for a long time.  You meet someone from high school who says ‘my you’ve put on some weight haven’t you’.  You know the school re-union is just months away.  Originally we were unhappy about our weight.  But with one conversation and an imminent social date we went from ‘wanting’ to ‘doing’.  The threat of the pain of being judged by peers heightened our awareness and you can be sure we started to think of solutions!


What  is the difference between an opinion, a belief and a conviction?

We all have opinions.  Right or wrong we are all ‘entitled’ to them!  Opinions can change reasonably easily (dependent on the personality of those having them of course!).  At a dinner table or on the phone you can often sway a person’s opinion or be swayed by that person.  An opinion is essentially the seed of a belief.  You ‘think’ this might be the case but you’re looking for references to build that opinion into a belief. 

personal%252520training%252520trainer%252520with%252520megaphoneImagine the ‘opinion’ that exercise is painful.  Then you talk to several others (getting external references) that reinforce your thoughts.  Then you have the misfortune of turning on the TV when one of ‘those’ trainers is yelling and thrashing a client to make them ‘pay’ for their sins.  The pain on the face of the client further reinforces your opinion.  Then you take part in a work ‘social touch’ match and for the next few days you can hardly walk.  Okay, that’s it, you now believe exercise is painful.  You have some pretty solid evidence to prove it.

So, beliefs are opinions that have set down roots.  They are the saplings that may grow in to burly, heavy, solid and immovable trees of conviction.

A conviction is a belief that you hold so strongly that you are entirely resistant to any other view on things.  You start to see all references as supporting the belief and even ‘manipulate’ your perception to make any reference support your conviction. 

You will have experienced this before somewhere in your life.  A person who you just couldn’t convince, or get to accept that there might be another view or way to do something. 

Once we hold a ‘conviction’ we may even change the significance or interpretation of references to keep it, particularly if we are not willing to question it. 

So, a conviction is an unquestioned and unshifting belief.  personal%20training%20ghandiThis type of power can be hugely beneficial or completely damaging.  Imagine if you believed so strongly that your race was superior to another such as in Hitler’s reign.  Or that because you had money you could do anything you wanted, to anyone. 

On the other side of the coin, imagine if you fervently believed non violence would solve apartheid.  And then went on to endure years of torture and ridicule (external references and challenges to that conviction) until such time as others started to believe.


What is ‘self’ and how do we find it?

This is a tough one.  I guess it’s easy to tag behaviours and actions and references, because we can ‘objectively’ judge them.  What do they do? What were their actions?  How do they see things?

But what is ‘self’?  You could look at it as what you think of you.  It is your thoughts about your own identity – ‘what you are in your eyes’.  It is all encompassing.  Your view of your ‘self’ might include physical, mental, emotional, spiritual aspects and is a culmination of all of your experiences.  That’s why no-one can tell you ‘who you are’.  Only you know, and you will forever be learning more!

A sense of ‘self’, for me, has developed over time.  What I feel I am today is quite different than what I knew several years ago.  My image of my ‘self’ has changed and with it so have my behaviours, beliefs and values. 

In the last years I see my ‘self’ as caring, supportive, struggling and wilful.  If you’d have asked me in my early twenties I think the list would have been quite different as I saw myself differently at that time.

So, ‘self’ is really what ever you think you are.  And, as you can imagine, that is very powerful in influencing how you behave.  Sometimes, we say if you don’t have a good sense of yourself you are ‘unsure’ of yourself.  Meaning you don’t know who you are.  Symptoms we may identify with are unease, moodiness, changeable ‘nature’ – all ‘emotional’ aspects of your self.

And this brings me to an interesting point.  If you are to have values you understand, have beliefs that work for you, take actions that make sense to you, then surely all of that is anchored in your knowledge of your ‘self’.  As such, wouldn’t it be great if we had a closer relationship with our ‘self’ in order to convey that to others clearly. 

So, when someone turns up to a fitness centre to lose weight they want to change how they look at and feel about themselves, and what they are prepared to try in life.  One key aspect to being a personal trainer is to know how exercise has helped mould you.  And, that the person sitting in front of you wants something of that experience, wants that experience in some way to change them.  In order to do that, you need to work with them to take the right actions, which will mean overtime understanding what they believe and why.


The behavioural model applied to the fitness setting

Now we are going to track some actions and see where we end up.  This should show you how one side of this model works versus the other.

personal%20training%20woman%20on%20scalesMarg is really overweight and unhappy.  She finds solace in food as it changes her feelings instantly.  She eats when bored, depressed, tired or anxious.  She wants to change and has wanted to for a long time.  She has lost partners and her freedom because of her weight and is in such a state that she now joins a gym.  They sell her a membership by getting her emotional about the results she’ll get quickly and talk about how she’ll look in the new dress.

She takes up the challenge and does well for the first few weeks.  Her trainer has given her an intense program and she believes that she’ll get results even though it hurts a lot.   But, at the end of her second week she weighs herself and hasn’t lost any weight, plus she is very tired and the food she is eating doesn’t really taste the way she wants.  Depressed, she decides to treat herself and get into some chocolate and chips in front of the TV and have a night in.

The next day she is feeling guilty and despite planning to work out and having her gear right there she decides to stay home as her legs are still sore from Thursday.  She enjoys staying at home and slips back to her old ways.  She cancels her session on Tuesday with the trainer giving the reason she’s got shin splints and doesn’t use her membership again.

Pretty corny but let’s take a look. 

Step 1:            She was emotional and because of great pain wanted a fix.  Pain was     driving her to change her actions. 

Step 2:            She emotionally linked exercise as the solution to her pain and had this reinforced by slick sales people

Step 3:            She then got a challenging program she thought (she had high enough self belief at the time) she could do.  Her desire was enough for her to push herself to the point of pain repeatedly.  She referenced the pain as progress.

Step 4:            She weighed herself and the pain was quickly referenced to her core belief that she was always going to be this way.  It was enough to make her think – it’s not possible, it’ll never happen, or I can’t.

Step 5:            She relapses without a plan, experiences guilt and takes on her old less painful behaviours.

Step 6:            She disengages completely.


Unfortunately  Marg’s example plays out all too often in the fitness industry.

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