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Nutrition psychology: goal setting

Goal setting is an important part of your motivational technique to support the client. It is important that the client has reached at least the contemplation phase of behaviour change or it may be counterproductive. In that case you should support the client to achieve self-efficacy before setting training or nutrition based goals.

Research shows that if a client has set goals to achieve they are more likely to reach their desired outcome through increased effort, persistence and concentration. By setting goals it encourages a client to try harder and for a longer period of time.

For example, you are working with a new to exercise client and trying to encourage that client to increase their daily activity by walking more. Advising them to use a step tracker and aiming to walk 8,000 steps per day is going to achieve a better outcome them simply telling them to "walk more".

Generally, if a client has a set goal they will make more effort to achieve it, for example clearing a space in the diary to go on a walk to ensure the goal is met. It is also more likely that if they do not achieve their 8,000 steps they will feel dissatisfied and try harder the proceeding days to make up for it, increasing subsequent motivation and effort.

It is however vital for you to consider the type of goal which is set for the client and to discuss this together. If the goal is too difficult for the client, for example if a training programme is set which involves too many new exercises that the client is not confident in performing independently, it may lead to greater initial effort and persistence to try and please you. However, if the client is not ready for these exercises and struggles to complete them it may lead to feelings or failure, reduced self-efficacy and a negative outlook on training. So the goal must be realistically achievable for the client.

As a fitness professional it is important you provide feedback to the client regarding their goals. If the client is making progress it is important to address this positively as it will enhance self-efficacy and satisfaction with their efforts.

Generally, health based goals will produce their own rewards when they are completed; for example loosing 0.5kg a week or running a 10km race in 50 minutes or ensuring five portions of vegetables are eaten daily will all provide the client with self-satisfaction and improved feelings of wellbeing and self-esteem. For most, thoughts of future outcomes are adequate to maintain motivation and persistence whilst achieving the goal.

For some clients, extrinsic rewards may be required to ensure effort is maintained. This should be discussed during the goal setting process. So if a client desires to lose 0.5kg per week for 12 weeks in bodyweight, the set reward could be that they treat themselves to new piece of clothing when that goal is reached. It is recommended not to involve food as part of the reward, for example a client rewarding themselves with a takeaway after reaching their target weight will facilitate emotional eating, allowing the client to link unhealthy foods with feeling good, this is not beneficial for health.

A popular way to set goals with clients is to use the acronym SMART.

S = Specific – the goal should be well defined between yourself and client.

M = Measurable – the goal should have a clear end point and ways to gauge progress.

A = Agreed upon – the goal should be decided between both client and yourself.

R = Realistic – the goal should achievable for the client within the availability of their time and knowledge.

T = Time based – the goal should have enough time to achieve it.

For example, if a client wants to lose weight, a SMART goal could be;

“To lose 0.5kg bodyweight per week for 12 weeks by following set training and dietary plans and checking in with a fitness professional every week to measure weight loss progress.”

Or if a client wanted to eat healthier, a SMART goal could be;

“To reduce sugar and fat consumption in the diet by decreasing fizzy drinks to two per week and restricting chocolate to a small 15g packet per day and increasing vegetable intake by adding two portions to lunch and dinner for the next four weeks, ensuring a daily food diary is kept during this time.”

Or if a client wanted to exercise more, a SMART goal could be;

“To complete two 5km jogs at a pace of 10kph and perform one gym resistance session following set programme every week for the next six weeks.”

If you are interested in further developing your coaching skills please get in touch for upcoming CPD events.

Rachel x