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Sept. 20 2006 12:00 AM

            Want a glimpse of the future? Consider this: Many of your future clients will never set foot inside a fitness center. Moreover, you may never even meet some of these clients face-to-face. These predictions might seem unbelievable. Yet, these changes are not so improbable, particularly with the fast-paced nature of the fitness field and the evolving needs of our consumers. Staying ahead of the game by expanding your services to include lifestyle fitness coaching can prepare you to reap greater results not only for your clients, but also for your professional market and profit.

            Lifestyle fitness coaching represents a marriage of personal training and the new field of life coaching. It offers clients vast opportunities for personal development as well as promotes health through active living. These new opportunities are leading the way into uncharted turf often beyond club walls. Lifestyle fitness coaching is built on the foundation of coaches' expertise in exercise and sport sciences, while embracing the sophisticated communication strategies derived from life coaching. Clients can develop self-competency, interpersonal skills, more effective work patterns and positive lifestyle habits through creative fitness designs.


Paradigm Shift: Trainer to Coach

            Career opportunities in coaching derive from all-too-evident lifestyle-related health concerns. Hiring a personal trainer has always been a viable option for people who need support in exercising and for those who need clear guidance about how to get the most from their gym hours. However, marketing difficulties arise from two facts: One is that most people don't belong to health clubs, and the second is that of the population of club-goers, only the most committed renew memberships, while those with yo-yo exercise habits, or those who can't find their niche in club environments, leave without notice.

            Life coaching, which traces its history to the late 1980s, became clearly visible in the fitness industry around the turn of the century. Long-time personal trainers were all too familiar with the limitations of purely biomechanical solutions for client agendas. As effective listeners and talented communicators, they knew how to get beneath the surface of client resistance to unleash hidden potential for growth and life change through physical activity. However, two dynamics limited their career opportunities. The first was that clients often had specific expectations of what trainers do and for what services they have paid. As one trainer in a coaching course told me, "I always talk to my clients about general issues while they're doing their cardio work on a treadmill or bike." I asked whether she charged clients to have that same conversation in a private session or over the phone. Her response was somewhat defensive, "Well, they don't have time for that!" The coaching model legitimizes the "talk" part of the professional relationship, allowing the coach to provoke and support change by working with clients' mental "muscles." Lifestyle fitness coaches may spend as much time dialoging with clients as they do training them on the floor.

            The second limitation is best illustrated by reconsidering the parable of the drunk looking for his keys under the lamppost because that's where the light is located. It's true that fitness professionals have unparalleled opportunities for connecting with coaching clients in health/fitness centers. After all, novice exercisers require support, intelligent guidance and strategy to integrate regular activity into their lifestyles. Unfortunately, most people never see the inside of a health club. Therefore, lifestyle fitness coaching involves outreach. Coaches can now connect with their clients via the Internet or phone and, when appropriate, in person. The fitness center may be the hub of activity, but marketing coaching is not necessarily about getting clients to come into the center.


Changing Expertise

            The clear conclusion from research is that people need considerable assistance changing sedentary lifestyle habits. Such changes take time, usually between six to 12 months. While most of these individuals are also unskilled in exercise technique, the likelihood is that they can walk and getting a sedentary person to walk for 10 minutes a day may be sufficient to prevent advancing disease conditions or to instill hope that can lead to even greater commitment. Having an expert guiding program design as well as supporting the initial and most turbulent phase of behavioral change  will definitely be worth paying for especially when clients, who may have body-esteem issues, don't have to manage the discomfort and embarrassment they may initially experience in club environments.

            Coaches use influential communication strategies to activate motivation and to help clients see possibilities in situations previously defined as hopeless. They recognize that many clients have esteem issues that will prevent them from even considering joining a traditional fitness club and that their physical capacities may be so limited in which only a small portion of the time spent at a gym could be effectively devoted to training. So coaches begin with baby steps and they provide structured support, feedback and accountability strategies. They don't have to wait for the client to show up at the gym. Rather, they phone or use email to stay in regular contact, and they are skilled in engaging powerful dynamics embedded in their professional relationship to move sedentary clients toward action.

            However, coaching is not just for the inactive. Baby boomers who are transitioning into pre-retirement and retirement stages confront a myriad of new challenges. If they have been active, their bodies may require different forms of movement and nurturing. Having spent the past 20 to 30 years engaging in one or two sports, they may now face the need to change activities in order to maximize physical activity options for the duration of their lives. This growing group of consumers needs not only support, but they also need a strategist who can help them discover new potential and motivation in different activity programs. '


Practical Differences

            When comparing a lifestyle fitness coach's style to that of a personal trainer, core distinctions can be found:


             Change is a learning process: Coaches recognize that clients usually contact them when something is "ending" in their lives. Such endings lead to new beginnings, but not before the client experiences a, sometimes, turbulent period of disorientation, emotionality and self-examination. This "in-between" period doesn't follow the rules of logic and rationality. Coaches are trained to guide clients through these rough waters with empathy and structure. Adopting or altering physical activity programs is seen as a significant learning process that includes social, emotional and psychological changes. Coaches have helpful roadmaps for clients struggling with the dynamics of change.

             Coaching is about the relationship: Coaches know that the greatest tool they have comes from the strength of the bond they build with clients. Yet, this isn't a friendship relationship. Managing boundaries, confronting clients when they are projecting blame and reinforcing success without creating dependency are integral skills in a coach's repertoire. Coaches know when to direct clients toward action and when to follow the client's lead. They have to get inside the client's thought processes without being intrusive, and they need to demonstrate that they are completely trustworthy.

             Power and expertise are balanced: In addition to technical expertise, coaches are experts in communication skills and relationship dynamics. Clients may look to coaches to make decisions for them, coaches must walk a fine line by encouraging client autonomy and self-determination while ensuring that they don't engage in potentially injurious actions.

             Goals are multi-dimensional: Clients may have broad goals that range from the physical to psychological to lifestyle. Coaches can help clients transfer the lessons they learn from sports and physical training to other domains of their lives. Coaches know that clients may exercise to manage moods as well as self-esteem as much as for physical benefits, and they are skilled at program design that will maximize the psychological payoffs. 


            Dr. James Gavin is author of "Lifestyle Fitness Coaching" (Human Kinetics 2005), psychologist, life coach and professor in the Department of Applied Human Sciences at Concordia University in Montreal. For more information, visit


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