Willpower and self-control are easier to talk about than to cultivate consistently. They are both stellar qualities to possess but aren’t an ideal go-to gameplan for long-term behavior change.

What do emotions have to do with motivation?

smiling people

In a Psychology Today article, Steven Stosny, Ph.D. says, “Emotions move us. The word, “emotion,” derived from the Latin, literally means “to move.” The ancients believed that emotions move behavior; in modern times we say they motivate behavior. Emotions energize us to do things by sending chemical signals to the muscles and organs of the body; they prepare us for action.”

A behavior change expert, Michelle Segar, PhD, MPH points to emotions as necessary for influencing healthier lifestyle choices. At IDEA World 2018, Segar proposed connecting the emotional desires clients have to healthier habits. Segar presented research that showed “feeling good” as a stronger motivator than “being healthy” or “being fit”.

In order to use emotions to our advantage in the fitness industry, we need to understand emotions and how they play into decision making.

Swap Self-Control with Self Regulation

Self-regulation is the ability to regulate emotions and desires, especially in relation to behavior. According to Dr. Stuart Shanker, a professor of psychology and philosophy, it is quite different then self-control. Shanker wrote a book called Self-Reg to help parents and children regulate emotions with more ease by recognizing hidden stressors.

Identifying and reducing stress is the heart of self-regulation and can be more impactful than trying to control oneself when over-stressed.

When stress is high, emotions are intense and energy is low it’s more challenging to control oneself. Studies done with kids and marshmallows demonstrate this concept. Attention is focused on maintaining homeostasis and surviving when stressed (perceiving threat). In other words – refusing a sweet treat is tough!

Shanker recommends we approach behavior change by raising self-awareness, acknowledging emotions, working with them and lowering stress levels to approach life from a calm and regulated place. It is then that self-control works more effectively. In his book, he discusses how reducing stress levels and stimulation can influence health behavior change.

Shanker shares an example of a client he encountered who recognized her food cravings as being stronger on more stressful days. When she became more self-aware and implemented self-regulation techniques such as a walking, calming breaths and knitting after work she found controlling her weight to be much easier.

Instead of trying so hard to make healthy choices, coach your clients to take care of themselves in a way that calms the body and mind. Then, healthy decisions can feel more natural.

Self-Regulation with Fitness

Your clients engage in self-regulation (exercise) when they come to see you in the gym. Physical fitness is a stress reducer when applied properly for the individual. What about the other hundreds of hours in the week?

Ask your clients to keep a detailed health journal that includes all aspects of wellness to raise awareness. This can help them identify what is happening day to day and where to implement quick and easy stress-reducing activities such as deep breathing for 2 minutes, closing their eyes for 1 minute, walking for 5-10 minutes, etc.

Stress reduction and self-regulation don’t need to be elaborate or time-consuming. People just need to pause during the day to recognize emotions and transform them from negative to positive instead of fighting with them or stuffing them away.

Also, encourage clients to eliminate stressful choices and exchange them with more relaxing ones. We all have habits and say yes to things that don’t truly serve us.

Ask your client what type of emotions they want to experience daily and what choices can be made to achieve those emotions.

Segar recommends helping clients identify what will get them to “feel better” by connecting health behavior to other aspects of their life that are valuable to them – such as being a good parent or focusing well at work. You can use Motivational Interviewing as a tool to investigate and guide your clients on this mission.

Even the most health driven people are tempted toward higher carbohydrate foods, sugar, caffeine, and alcohol when tired and stressed out. Teaching clients to pay closer attention to the underlying mechanisms of stress makes your efforts and theirs more worth the while.

Beverly Hosford

Beverly Hosford, MA teaches anatomy and body awareness using a skeleton named Andy, balloons, play-doh, ribbons, guided visualizations, and corrective exercises. She is an instructor, author, and a business coach for fitness professionals. Learn how to help your clients sleep better with in Bev’s NFPT Sleep Coach Program and dive deeper into anatomy in her NFPT Fundamentals of Anatomy Course.