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Editor,—While conducting research for my Masters degree in Counselling and Guidance, I was particularly interested in the approach adopted by fitness leaders/instructors when dealing with people wishing to start exercising.
My experience, and consequent understanding, of the typical approach used in fitness facilities is that the fitness leader adopts an “expert” role when dealing with beginners and underestimates the ambivalence felt by anyone considering a change of behaviour, such as taking more exercise. I strongly believe that the skills developed by these fitness helpers should be of a counselling nature. Listening develops greater empathy, and empathy helps individuals to understand their ambivalence. This, in turn, can lead to a resolution of the ambivalence that seems to hold many in a state of indecision when they consider taking up exercise.
I find little research to suggest that counselling for exercise involves little more than giving information and advice. The process of helping to facilitate change very often calls for much more than this, and should include a respect for autonomy, adoption of a non-judgmental attitude, genuineness, and empathy, all of which are key and core counselling qualities.
Fitness instructors may also do well to ask themselves why they got into the industry. Many say that they love to help others get fit, but here's the paradox: those who appreciate their expert advice are generally more ready to exercise in the first place and need little help in doing so. Those who are less ready seem to be in most need of help with the change of behaviour and this requires a completely different approach which matches the mind set of this group.
To really “help” and really make an impact on the greater number of those who do not exercise, fitness leaders need to re-address their whole understanding of the issue of exercise “counselling”. I recommend they read Motivational Interviewing,1Health Behavior Change,2 or Changing Eating and Exercise Behaviour.3
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