Motivating our clients to exercise


As health professionals, it’s not always easy to keep our clients motivated to exercise. Some individuals love exercise and are self- motivated. But more often our clients can struggle at times to maintain the programs that we provide. Regular exercise is a complex, multi-factorial behaviour that we need to better understand, in order to help clients stay active and healthy.

Research suggests that 50% of persons starting an exercise program will drop out within the first 6 months (Wilson and Brookfield, 2009).

An interesting article by Buchan J et al (2015) explored assessing exercise barriers for individuals with cancer-related lymphoedema.

Abstract 1: Exercise barriers self-efficacy: development and validation of a subscale for individuals with cancer-related lymphedema.

Exercise barriers self-efficacy: development and validation of a subcale for individuals with cancer-related lymphedema, Health and Quality of Life Outcomes (Published: 18 March 2015) by Jena Buchan, Monika Janda, Robyn Box, Laura Rogers and Sandi Hayes

Why are some people motivated and others not?

How people view themselves, from past experiences to current reality, will influence whether they participate in exercise (Whaley and Schrider 2005). You may provide sound medical reasons to your client why they should exercise but they may still not undertake what is recommended due to their own self perception. Clients self efficacy which in this case is the person’s confidence in her/his ability to do exercise contributes to exercise adherence. The more people think they can successfully do exercise signifies they will more likely adhere to the exercise program. Exercise adherence demonstrate an intrinsic (incentive to exercise based on the expected enjoyment) motivation to exercise (Huberty et al 2008)

Being overweight and/or obese consistently proves to be negatively associated with exercise adherence. Schrider highlights that a person’s future hopes may also motivate them to exercise. For instance, if a person wishes to be independent in older adulthood, he/she may begin an exercise program and stay physically active to reach that goal.

Below are some factors and tips that you may want to consider when you are trying to motivate your clients to exercise. It’s not an exhaustive list but rather some ideas to add to the tool box. Firstly you need to establish a sense of trust which is underpinned by effective listening and showing empathy.

1. Uncover your client’s needs

Perhaps the most critical skill in uncovering the needs of a client is the skill of inquiry. Central to effective dialogue, inquiry involves asking questions with a spirit of curiosity and with a goal of trying to understand how your client perceives exercise.

As practitioners we are keen for our clients to exercise. For our clients to start and the sustain exercising there is a direct relationship with their motivation, ability and willingness to take and sustain effective action. The more difficult or uncomfortable the action is, the more your client must obtain desire, resources and permission.

2. Desire

Clients need to have a desire or want to exercise. Practitioners can assist this by imparting appropriate knowledge. Research has consistently demonstrated that client’s “understanding of their condition and treatments is positively related to adherence” (Lipton-Dibner 2011) Adherence, satisfaction, recall and understanding are all related to the amount and type of information given.


  • Limit instructions to 3 or 4 major points.
  • Use simple, everyday language.
  • After demonstrating or explaining exercise programs provide written material that is in a point form and clear to understand.
  • Involve client’s family members and friends. For example if your client is commencing a walking program they may be more motivated if they do this with a family member, friend or walking group.

Don’t forget use a pedometer to provide feedback and motivate achieving more steps

  • Choose something they will enjoy.
  • Reinforce concepts at each visit.
  • Simplify the exercise program. The more complex the program the greater the effect on adherence. Break down the exercise program into less complex stages. For example an exercise program for someone with lymphoedema usually includes exercises for the lymphatic system, range of movement, strengthening and cardiovascular. For clients that are new to exercise the practitioner may need to introduce each of these types of exercises separately and even break down each of these to smaller components.

3. Modifying beliefs and human behaviour

It is important to address the client’s belief, intention and self-efficacy (perceived ability to perform the action) as knowledge alone isn’t enough to enhance the desire for a client to exercise. Practitioners can assist by ensuring the client understands:

  • The positive effects of the various exercise types.
  • Reinforce that the client has the skills to perform the exercise program ( self- efficacy).

4. Client communication

Practitioners need to leave behind their bias. A client may have certain personality traits, education level or certain demographic factors but that doesn’t mean that they can be labelled with poor or good adherence. In fact a person’s adherence can fluctuate from time to time.

5. Evaluate adherence

Don’t forget to evaluate adherence eg a walking log book is a simple way to review a clients’ walking program.

6. Resources

Lack of sufficient resources such as  money, time, family support, transport and health can block a client’s ability to exercise.

7. Permission

The most complex and overlooked component of client’s ability to exercise is the degree to which action is blocked because the client isn’t willing to change. While there are many factors that inhibit permission the most common are fear, anger, lack of self-esteem and insufficient trust in the practitioners or in their opinion of what they are prescribing.

8. Promoting patient activities

The more difficult the action you want your clients to do, the greater must be their desire, resources and permission. Together they form the Action Plan.

Desire + Resources + Permission = Action

A strong action plan can be the key to success when the individual has:

  • A defined DESIRE for what they will achieve by exercising.
  • The necessary RESOURCES to be able to exercise. This may be allowing time, someone to do it with, a class etc.
  • Give themselves PERMISSION to do what is necessary.

How can we help?

Health professionals can assist by completing the following 3 steps when communicating with clients.

1. Help the client identify his / her personal desire for exercising.

“If you woke up tomorrow morning and magically you were physically able to do any exercise program which one or two would you choose?”

The point here is to help the individual imagine life without the impact of any physical issue and then you can work with them to achieving this or a variation that they have a desire to do.

2. Walk the client through a quick check list of RESOURCE challenges with the following question.

“What would keep you from being able to (insert the exercise program recommendation? “

Brainstorm possible solutions where resources are insufficient.

3. Identify PERMISSION barriers by asking…

“ Is there anything that would keep you from being willing to….. (exercise program recommended)?

Or is there anything that makes you feel uncomfortable?”

These questions can be used for other management strategies you may be trying to implement.

Some other motivation ideas:

  • Keep an exercise journal – Write down how you feel after exercising.
  • Remember your goals – Why are you doing this?
  • Ask yourself: “Will I regret not going for a walk today?”
  • Work out with people who will cheer you on – get a friend to join you.
  • Set aside a set time in the day/week for your activity so it is part of your daily routine, just like brushing your teeth.
  • Surround yourself with motivation – stick such as motivational pictures, quotes and your goals on your car mirror, refrigerator, calendar, etc. as a constant reminder.
  • Track your successes – keep a log of your activity.
  • Listen to the voice inside that says, “I can do this!”