The neurology of behaviour change: How personal trainers can use brain science to help clients achieve their health and fitness goals

The neurology of behaviour changeWhen someone tells you to do something you don’t particularly want to do, what’s your immediate response?

Do you think about it for a moment before making up an excuse not to do it or just immediately say no? Do you act defiant until you realize it’s not a criticism and perhaps a good idea after all? Or are you open to the possibility of the action and agree after briefly thinking it through?

I have to try really hard not to act defiant when someone tells me to do something I only mildly despise, so I can’t imagine how some of my personal training clients feel when I give them an exercise plan. “On Monday, do this strength workout for 45 minutes”. Ugggh, they must think, especially if they’ve been told they need to lose weight by their doctor and exercising is something they have to do. They may want to have a strong and fit body, but aren’t looking forward to the work it’s going to take to make that happen. It also doesn’t help that the human brain values immediate rewards more highly than future rewards, so an hour spent on the couch watching Netflix will easily trump an hour spent squatting and sweating any day of the week.

If that wasn’t enough to contend with, there’s also something else going on in the brain that works against your best interests when someone tries to help you with their well-meaning fitness and health advice.

According to this epically long article by leadership coach David Rock and research psychiatrist Jeffrey Schwartz that I came across the other day as part of research for my day job – but that I found totally applicable to personal trainers and the fitness industry – our brains will do everything in their power to keep us in a state of homeostasis, even if the change is beneficial to us.

“The human brain can behave like a 2-year-old: Tell it what to do and it automatically pushes back,” writes Rock and Schwartz. “Partly this phenomenon is a function of homeostasis (the natural movement of any organism toward equilibrium and away from change), but it also reflects the fact that brains are pattern-making organs with an innate desire to create novel connections.”

So how do we help our clients (and ourselves) create novel connections to initiate change in a way that makes it stick?

Well, for one, it has to be their idea.

When people solve a problem themselves, otherwise known as a moment of insight, the brain releases a rush of neurotransmitters and new, complex sets of connections are created. It’s from these new connections that we create the “potential to enhance our mental resources and overcome the brain’s resistance to change.”

I feel like this moment of insight one might experience when they realize the need for the change is similar to what James Fell is talking about in this fantastic article about how epiphanies can lead to major life changes. “It’s a parameter of the transtheoretical model called ‘dramatic relief’ that can take place when one moves from the contemplation stage and into the planning stage, from thinking to doing, because you anticipate relief from your problems because you know you’re ready to work for their resolution,” Fell writes. “It’s hard to describe an epiphany as an ‘approach’ to behavior change, since we don’t know much about what causes them – they mostly just happen. However, when they do happen, they’re usually more effective than the rational, linear approach to behavior change that rules modern psychology.”

Even though the desire to change has to come from within and can seemingly happen at random, there are ways coaches and personal trainers can steer clients toward epiphanies and moments of insights.

“For insights to be useful, they need to be generated from within, not given to individuals as conclusions,” writes Rock and Schwartz. “This is true for several reasons. First, people will experience the adrenaline-like rush of insight only if they go through the process of making connections themselves. The moment of insight is well known to be a positive and energizing experience. This rush of energy may be central to facilitating change: It helps fight against the internal (and external) forces trying to keep change from occurring, including the fear response of the amygdala… So rather than lecturing and providing solutions, effective coaches ask pertinent questions and support their clients in working out solutions on their own.”

So what kind of questions can coaches and personal trainers ask their clients to help guide them toward epiphanies? What kinds of situations or experiences can we create to allow for moments of insight to happen?

This is where things aren’t so cut and dry when it comes to fitness, behavior change and brain science. As Fell points out, epiphanies seem to happen at random. There’s no specific formula to encourage someone to change their behavior because everyone is different, with different needs, wants and desires. What I say to one client might motivate them into action, while the same advice given to a different client might not resonate at all with them. The key, I think, is digging deep to find a client’s intrinsic motivation without being overly persuasive, and asking the right questions to lead them to their own self-discovery.

There are several techniques personal trainers and coaches can employ to do this, such as the Socratic method. But as Schwartz and Rock point out, “even the Socratic method can backfire when it is wielded by someone in authority who is trying to convince others of a particular solution or answer.” A person can detect when your inquiry isn’t authentic, so if your heart isn’t in the right place (*cough* then you shouldn’t be a personal trainer! *cough*) it’s not going to work.

Instead, Schwartz and Rock suggest a “solution-focused questioning approach that facilitates self-insight, rather than through advice-giving”. Although this kind of falls within the realm of psychotherapy, there are plenty of good resources out there that coaches and trainers can glean from to help their clients if they’re struggling to make a change, such as Coach Stevo’s Habitry website and this list of 21 progress-focused questions for behaviour change. I did find a small study that demonstrated greater exercise adherence using a solution-focused approach, so I believe more research in this realm is warranted.

Of course, you can’t expect your client to answer these type of questions unless they feel safe and comfortable with you. This is why fostering a relationship of trust with your client is important – it helps create the environment to allow for self discovery. Certainly uncomfortable situations – such as a trainer yelling at you to keep going unless you puke, faint or die – can elicit a reaction of change. But remember what generally happens when we’re told to do something we don’t want to do?

Nnnnope. From my favourite The Oatmeal comic.

Nnnnope. From my favourite The Oatmeal comic.


But what if you don’t have a good personal trainer or coach with whom you feel comfortable talking to about your deepest struggles? How do you create your own opportunity for moments of insight if you don’t want to wait around for it to happen randomly?

That’s the million dollar question.

Some people read blogs or self-help books hoping to be inspired or transformed, or attend health workshops and weekend retreats. Others keep heading down a dangerous path until they hit rock bottom to unwillingly provoke change. Although seeking inspiration would be the more desired approach, sometimes it’s those things that jolt you out of your comfort zone – like being diagnosed as borderline diabetic or not being fit enough to keep up with your kids – that are the catalyst for change. If a wake-up call is what you need, perhaps visit your doctor to get a physical. Or put yourself in a position to do something you know will make you feel uncomfortable right now so you can make it your goal to feel more comfortable next time around, such as taking a beginner’s yoga class or going for a swim at a local rec centre – anything that will introduce some chaos into your life, as Fell puts it.

If you’re reading this blog, you’re most likely already on the path to creating a moment of insight to allow for change to happen. So keep going; stay focused, cause some chaos and let those new neural pathways to connect to create new behaviours and ways of thinking to change your life.

If you’ve ever changed a behaviour, how did you do it — was it a linear process, did you have help from a therapist or coach or did you experience a moment of insight? Have you ever experienced a moment of insight that changed everything? Coaches and trainers: Do you employ the solution-focused questioning approach with clients?