The Value of Habit Coaching for Long Term Success

Jun 3, 2019

By Tim Saye

Habit Coaching has become a buzzword among personal trainers, online coaches and fitness professionals in the past year. Many of them include it as a feature in their weight loss or fat loss programmes, and an increasing number of aspiring nutrition coaches start to shift their focus from a diet-based to a habit-based approach.

While habit coaching often comes up in a nutrition coaching aspect, it can be applied to all areas of life, including exercise or work life.

What Are Habits?

There are a few ways to describe what a habit is; my favourite one is "an acquired behaviour pattern regularly followed until it has become almost involuntary. In other words, the things we do unconsciously and repeatedly.

40-50% of all our actions a day are habits we keep performing out of habit, without even realising we are doing them. Think of brushing our teeth, making coffee first thing in the morning or stretching right after opening our eyes. Our food choices, commute decisions, smoking with coffee or how we prioritise tasks can also become involuntary if you practice them regularly and for long enough.

Habits vs Diets

When you start working with a client who's been struggling with their weight or body composition and claim they've tried everything they could think for losing the weight with no success, changing the focus from their diet to their daily habits can be massively beneficial.

We, fitness professionals know full well, that from a purely technical aspect, pretty much all sensible diets that help clients maintain a calorie deficit will help them lose weight, unless there’s an underlying cause. So why is it, that majority of the clients you come across report that they tried and failed and tried again and failed even more.

When you ask people why they struggle with their weight, in most cases they will be able to list a few specific points they think is behind it: “I don’t seem to be able to control portion sizes.”; “ I love food too much”; “I can’t seem to be able to stop snacking late night” and many similar.

Reading between the lines during a consultation will help you recognise if the person sitting opposite you has a problem that needs a “diet-fix” or a “habit-fix”.

Most people who are generally healthy, want to become more active and shift some weight really need help with how to change their habits to create a lifestyle that will help them become more active, fitter, healthier and lose weight in the process.

A diet-fix is suited for someone who has a very specific timeline to hit a goal, whether that’s for vanity or sports performance purposes, or due to high risk of hitting a point in health decline which becomes irreversible. Examples: figure competitors and people battling conditions like diabetes or obesity. Both of these situations will require the expertise of a dietitian or clinician who is qualified to work with that population.

How to Coach Clients to Change their Habits

Since we already discussed that habits are actions, we perform almost involuntary daily, you can only imagine how challenging it can be to change those. It’s no surprise there are books, courses and all type of resources available for professionals to learn how to help others through habit change.

If you have no experience in this field, I highly recommend you do some research and find a way to gain some understanding and deeper knowledge on how to support your clients to the point where they're able to identify the habits they need to change, create strategies on how to achieve that change and also how to sustain it. I will list a few paths you can take at the end of this article but let’s look at the main steps.

Step 1. Identify Damaging Habits and their Cues

You can use Motivational Interviewing techniques to help your clients recognise and share their habits they think is derailing their success when it comes to their progress. Whether that’s drinking wine every night, drinking calorie-dense hot drinks or not being able to work out after work, have them list those sticky areas instead of you pointing them out.

After that, help them dig deeper into those actions and help them find the trigger. When they are most likely doing them? Is it the time of the day, a sensation, like feeling hungry or craving a specific flavour, maybe a result of a stressful situation or they are linked to another habit, like dessert or a drink after meals?

Step 2. Replace the Habits

The trigger or cue is a crucial element of every habit, but once your client knows why they do certain things, they can start thinking of new habits that can replace the old ones.

Example 1: Drinking a glass of water with every meal can be a great replacement for someone who drinks a lot of soft drinks or even alcoholic drinks at certain meals. Why not get rid of thirst with water first, then they can focus on whether they need that other drink.

Example 2: Introducing a 20-30 min walk after lunch every day may help with stress management and reduce the likelihood of resorting to damaging habits, like smoking or comfort eating.

Example 3: Packing for the day ahead in the evening, including workout gear for days when the client has exercise scheduled in their plan, so they have no room to change their mind. The deal could also be, that even if they feel they have no energy to train, just get to the gym and see how they feel. Likely by the time they changed, they’ll be up for a workout.

Step 3. Associate the New Habit with the Trigger and Repeat

This is the challenging part, especially because it may get boring; but referring to the definition of habit, before an action can become involuntary, people have to perform it repeatedly for a sustained period of time. Focusing on one habit change at a time for a few weeks can feel very slow progress, but when done right it will be for life.

For a habit to stick, it helps to have a good trigger. Think of flossing. Finishing breakfast or dinner triggers brushing your teeth, that then triggers flossing your teeth followed by mouthwash for some. If any of the events in the chain happens out of routine, the whole chain may not happen. So when you coach your clients to keep practising the new habit, ensure they do it regularly as an action-reaction to the cues.

If you can't think of natural triggers for certain habits find out what time clients need a trigger and pre schedule daily reminder messages for them in the PT Distinction message centre, something as simple as a message notification can be a useful trigger to dramatically boost adherence.

Recommended Resources

Book: Charles Duhigg – The Power of Habit.

Oxford Paper on Habit Formation and Behavior Change.

Course: Precision Nutrition – Level 1 Coach – The whole PN system is built on habit coaching.