The journey of behavior change is a nonlinear process and clients progress and regress through several stages as they grapple with adopting new lifestyle behaviors that support their larger health goals. As a result, lapses and relapses are possible and common. In the current “quarantined” state most of us are in, it’s important that we support clients if they do experience a slip in progress. Here’s how you can help.

The Difference Between Lapses and Relapses

A lapse is a brief return to a previous behavior. For example, a client may neglect his or her workouts for a week or overindulging a few times while on vacation. These lapses are often small and do not derail the client’s progress towards his or her goals.

A relapse, in contrast, is a full return to the previous behavior that ultimately leads to a regression in progress and/or abandonment of initially desired goals. Several small lapses can lead to a full relapse. The goal is to intervene early in a lapse and help your clients get back on track.

Supportive Strategies

  1. Closely and continuously monitor progress. As fitness professionals, we can expect lapses to occur. What we don’t want is for several small lapses to result in a total relapse back to the original behavior(s). It’s important for fitness professionals to be in frequent contact with their clients as a way of “checking in”. Reflective journaling can be helpful. If clients cannot Zoom, other virtual check-ins are valuable. Be sure to update the client’s record and note any signs of a potential lapse.
  2. Plan for high-risk situations in advance. When you work with your clients on setting goals, include a component that addresses what clients perceive as “high-risk” situations. Such situations can include dinner parties, staff meetings at which pastries are served,  in the office break room where there’s a candy dish, etc. Brainstorm these situations with your clients and work together to create an action plan for how your clients can confront and overcome the temptations that come with those situations.
  3. Reframe thought patterns. It’s difficult to admit when we’ve lapsed or made a choice that isn’t in our best interest. However, it is counter-productive to engage in negative self-talk or to punish ourselves for an unintended misstep. Helping clients reframe their thoughts and self-talk is critical. If your clients engage in negative self-talk, work on rephrasing. For example, your client might say “I just can’t do this.” You can offer a rephrase that might sound like, “I didn’t make the best choice today, but I will tomorrow.”
  4. Mistakes do not equal failure. We inherently believe that if we make a mistake, we’ve failed. This is not true. It’s a mistake – not a fatal error. When coaching clients through their behavior change efforts, discuss the idea of mistakes as part of change. And instead of focusing on the mistake itself, center your conversations with your clients on what factors contributed to the lapse or misstep. Was it an unanticipated high-risk situation? Did stress play a role? Fatigue? Once you help your client identify why a specific choice was made, discuss ways to address the same situation should it arise again.
  5. Conduct a habit review. It’s necessary to be aware of habits before we make efforts to change them. Habits are unconscious actions we take throughout each day and are part of the lifestyle we lead. Your client might identify specific behaviors that will allow you to coach them towards strategies to combat those behaviors.

For example, a client might state, “I’m just eating too much at dinner.” This is an opportunity for you to ask, “What do you feel is causing this?” The client might then further identify, “Well, I have been missing my afternoon snack, so I’m really hungry when it comes to dinner time.” You, as the personal trainer, can help clients explore options for addressing this issue.

As you work with clients to change health behaviors, you will observe occasional lapses in behavior and judgment that could, if left unaddressed, lead to a regression and complete return to earlier habits. Know that lapses and relapses are part of the journey and you can effectively support your clients through the challenges they are likely to face. In doing so, you not only encourage them to move beyond a challenge, but you also cultivate their self-acceptance and ownership in their journey towards optimal living.

Erin Nitschke

Dr. Erin Nitschke, NFPT-CPT, NSCA-CPT, ACE Health Coach, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Therapeutic Exercise Specialist, and Pn1 is a health and human performance college professor, fitness blogger, mother, and passionate fitness professional. She has over 15 years of experience in the fitness industry and college instruction. Erin believes in the power of a holistic approach to healthy living. She loves encouraging her clients and students to develop body harmony by teaching focused skill development and lifestyle balance. Erin is also the Director of Educational Partnerships & Programs for the NFPT. Erin is an editorial author for ACE, IDEA, The Sheridan Press, and the Casper Star Tribune. Visit her personal blog at