A New Approach to Fitness Coaching

Gyms focus on building better habits

By Barbara Russi Sarnataro
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Feature

Reviewed By Michael Smith, MD

Carla Brooks had an on-again, off-again relationship with exercise.

"I'd get started and do pretty well for a while, but I'd get busy and drop off," said the 52-year-old former schoolteacher from Alpharetta, Ga. This often happened in the summer, when her family was traveling and eating out more often.

But, she says, all that changed last summer when she enrolled in the Coach Approach program at her local YMCA. Coach Approach, used in YMCAs in 14 major U.S. cities, is a customized workout program that works on building the exercise habit before promising physical changes.

"It's a behavioral change tool for people who have a hard time sticking with exercise and letting everything else in life come first," says Jennifer Unruh, director of wellness support services for the YMCA of Metropolitan Atlanta.

Coach Approach is the brainchild of Jim Annesi, PhD, a behavioral psychologist who is director of wellness advancement for the Metro Atlanta YMCA. Hoping to address the huge dropout rate among new gym members, he implemented the program three years ago.

Though people are better informed about the benefits of exercise than ever before, many still find it hard to stick with a fitness program. Between 55% and 65% of new gym members drop out in the first three to six months, according to a 2003 study published in the European Journal of Sports Science.

Since Coach Approach began, that dropout rate has been as much as halved in some Ys, says Annesi.

The six-month program is free with a YMCA membership. It helps members create short- and long-term goals, addresses nutrition as well as exercise, and, most important, says Annesi, gives members psychological tools to help them adapt to the lifestyle change.

Overcoming Obstacles

Wellness Coaches address the many ways to talk yourself out of exercise -- everything from child care, to time constraints, to fatigue, to finding the best fitness scenario for you.

"Maybe it's that you don't come to the Y but you join a walking group in your area," says Unruh.

The coaches guide exercisers through psychological and physical testing to make sure they feel positive about their workouts and don't do too much, too soon. They meet with members six times over the six months to continually tweak their programs and help them overcome barriers. This also provides social support for people who might otherwise be intimidated walking into a gym.

"Coach Approach goes right at the heat of the ability to self-manage," says Annesi. "I simply do not believe in humans making changes because they are good for them. Unless you deal with self-management difficulties head-on, the failure rate will continue."

It worked for Brooks. Just past her one-year anniversary of joining the Y again, she's lost 65 pounds. She is no longer a borderline diabetic. Her knees don't ache like they used to, and she's much less tired and depressed.

"I knew I was 50 years old and I was facing a whole slew of problems if I didn't get control over it," says Brooks, who runs an Internet store.

When Brooks joined, she received a promotional one-year free membership that would be canceled if she didn't come to the Y enough. "Being tied in for a year was long enough that it helped me establish some habits," she says.

The coach was a huge motivator for Brooks.

"Each time I met with the coach, she had a topic to talk about," she says. "She gave you tools to deal with when you didn't feel like exercising or you got off track."

Brooks goes to the Y faithfully three days a week and walks with a friend another day. When she travels, she makes sure exercise is part of her trip, whether it's taking a walk or doing water aerobics.

The best testament to her success came when she picked up her daughter, returning from six months in Ireland, at the airport.

"She walked right past me. She didn't even recognize me," Brooks says. "She was so supportive and awed by what I'd done."

"His coach worked with him to find the ideal time to exercise, so he would be less likely to find excuses."

The Coach Approach also worked for Aaron Bovos, 33, of Alpharetta. Once a runner, he'd gotten away from exercise while working 12- to 14-hour days as the city's director of finance. "I probably gained 60 pounds in five years," he says.

His coach worked with him to find the ideal time to exercise, so he would be less likely to find excuses. That meant Bovos took an early lunch at his desk and went to the Y or out for a run about 1:30 each afternoon.

A year later, he runs eight miles, three days a week. He has lost 30 pounds and inspired many of his colleagues to exercise.



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