ISSA Chapter 2: Psychology of Behavior Change
ISSA Chapter 2: Psychology of Behavior Change 1

Chapter Goals:

  • Define behavior and behavior change.
  • Be able to explain the stages of change model and how it applies to fitness and wellness.
  • Define motivational interviewing, self-determination theory, and motivation.
  • Know the SMART goal components.
  • Be able to discuss the scope of practice for psychology and behavior change for personal trainers.

Behavior Change

Behavior is an action that can be observed, measured, or modified.

In a client’s fitness and health goals, there can be many behaviors that impact the achievement and progress of goals.

Some behaviors may also overlap to influence other possible behavioral targets.

An example of this could be a lack of sleep influencing someone’s health, like an increased risk of obesity, type 2 diabetes, and high blood pressure.

And then the behaviors that can improve sleep could be nutritional or exercise aspects.

Selecting the Target Behavior

Finding the target behavior is the foundational step in the process of behavior change.

Based on the initial intake and assessment, the trainer and client can discuss what behavior ought to be made the main focus.

This main focus behavior is going to be the target behavior.

Influences on Behavior

There are many influences on behavior that can happen, like internal stimuli, external stimuli, and cultural and societal norms, for a few common examples.

Since behavior change is such a complicated process, it helps to have a skillful and multimodal approach.

The Transtheoretical Model is one of the most popular models of behavior change adopted by health professionals, and the main focus of the ISSA.

This Transtheoretical model is a model of behavior change which focuses on various stages of change, the process of changing behaviors, self-efficacy, and the decision balance.

Self-efficacy is the certainty of one’s own ability to accomplish a task.

To make use of this model, and help a client make lifestyle changes to support their goals and longevity, personal trainers need to do these things:

  • find the client’s stage of change and find the next steps for them to support healthy behavior change
  • know the underlying components of self-determined behavior for the support of program design and execution of a training session
  • make use of motivational interviewing to foster internal motivation
  • use goal-setting most effectively

Stages of Change

Behavior change is not an isolated event that occurs at once and does not revert.

Instead, it is a dynamic process that happens over a long period of time.

The stages one progresses through consist of pre-contemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, and maintenance.

People will not always progress like a line, but instead, progress and regress throughout months and years.

The entire process of using this model starts by identifying what stage the client is in.

Precontemplation stage

This is the stage where someone is in denial, or ignorant, that change is needed, possible, or even worth their effort for the next six months.

There are three main indicators of this stage:

  • lacking the belief that change is possible
  • perceiving that they have no control over their behaviors
  • defeated by some attempts to change in the past

Contemplation Stage

In this stage, there is contemplation about making a change sometime in the next six months, but some reluctance to commit to anything.

The main indicators are:

  • awareness of possible benefits of making changes, but the perception of costs usually outweigh their benefits
  • procrastinating the behavior change efforts

Preparation Stage

This stage shows commitment being made to a target behavior within 30 days, and the person may begin activities to prepare to enact change.

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This is indicated by taking small steps toward the target behavior change.

Action Stage

This stage is when someone is engaged in changing behaviors for less than six months, and the new behavior is not fully stabilized in their life.

Actively doing things to change or modify behaviors marks this stage.

Structuring their environment in ways that support their healthy behavior is important.

Maintenance Stage

This stage sees the sustaining of the new, healthy behaviors for 6 months or more.

The new behavior(s) becomes second nature to the person and there is much greater confidence in keeping the new behavior.

Processes of Change

In terms of the transtheoretical model, there are 10 processes of change that will influence someone’s transition from one stage to the next.

These processes of change can be used to support the client’s advancement through the stages and stabilize behaviors once they reach maintenance.

The processes of change are either experiential or behavioral.

These processes focus on active strategies and influence behavior directly by manipulating environmental, social, or situational cues to encourage the desired behavior.

Experiential Processes of Change

Consciousness-raising involves increasing information about one’s self and of the unhealthy, undesired behavior or the new behavior.

Dramatic relief involves experiencing or expressing emotional reactions to the idea of continuing the unhealthy behavior and to the idea of initiating a change.

Self-reevaluation involves rethinking your own self-image to include the possibility of a successful behavior change.

Environmental reevaluation looks at reflecting on how your own current behavior affects the physical environment and people around them including the ones cared about.

Social liberation is the increase of awareness of how a healthy, desired behavior is supported by society.

Behavioral Processes of Change

Self-liberation is committing to take action with the belief that making a change is possible.

Helping relationships is seen by establishing relationships where one feels safe to share personal challenges and receive support like encouragement and guidance.

Counterconditioning is when there is a use of rewards and feedback strategically to reinforce positive behavior and act on one’s values.

Stimulus control is seen by avoiding stimuli that trigger unhealthy behaviors and intentionally creating cues that trigger the healthy behavior.

Motivational Theories and Applications

Motivation is one of the key ingredients to accomplishing goals. Without it, not much would ever happen.

Ideally, a client would be self-motivated and follow their training program down to a T by showing up for their sessions ready to give it 100% effort.

Unfortunately, it is not the reality all of the time. Instead, some input of motivation is required to keep clients headed in the right direction.

Effective motivation is one of the biggest challenges for people in positions of leadership, like with personal trainers in this case.

There are two main theories of motivation that will be discussed: self-determination theory and motivational interviewing.

Fundamentals of Motivation

Motivation involves a direction of effort partnered with an intensity of effort.

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Direction is what a person is drawn to or trying to actually achieve, like their set target behavior.

Intensity is the amount of effort and energy put forth toward the target behavior.

Intrinsic motivation is the drive to execute behaviors that are driven by internal and personal rewards.

Extrinsic motivation is the drive to perform particular behaviors based on external factors like praise, recognition, and money.

In general, intrinsic factors are viewed as better for long-term participation, while extrinsic is to be valued less.

Self-Determination Theory

Humans have basic biological needs like oxygen, sleep, clean water, and nutrition. They also have basic psychological needs to accomplish.

The three psychological needs which are universal, according to self-determination theory, are going to be autonomy, relatedness, and competence.


Autonomy is the need to feel in control of one’s own behaviors and goals. it can also be described as self-governance.

The use of autonomy begins as early as the program design phase, where the client’s goals are implemented in the program using the personal trainer’s expertise.

To support autonomy, pressure should be minimized, controlling behavior should be avoided, and client feelings should be acknowledged.


This is the need to feel effective when operating within the environment.

Clients are more motivated to take actions that help with achieving goals if they believe they have the knowledge, skills, and abilities for success.

Lacking perceived confidence can impact the behavior change process by decreasing motivation.

Some supportive behaviors for competence include providing structure and routine, providing optimal levels of challenge, providing opportunities to learn and master new skills, and providing feedback.


This is the need to feel connected to and supported by other people, like a sense of belonging in a group or community.

When it comes to exercise and health, the need for relatedness is often overlooked by the need for autonomy or competence.

Enhancing effectiveness as a trainer relies on consistent learning and growth.

Some supportive behaviors for relatedness would be things such as allowing for meaningful interpersonal interactions, promoting positive emotions to strengthen connections, promoting camaraderie and cohesion, and engaging in effective communication.

Motivational Interviewing

Every client will have unique personalities, experiences, and circumstances that influence their motivation for change, and specifically their progress through the stages of change.

Motivational interviewing is going to be an effective focus that will help clients discover unique motivations from within.

Motivational interviewing is a collaborative and client-focused method of guiding a client toward a self-identified motivation for change.

The underlying aim of motivational interviewing is to elicit the client’s own change talk.

The OARS model is a model of communication for motivational interviewing that includes open-ended questions, affirmations, reflective listening, and summarizing.

Rapport is a close, harmonious relationship where all parties involved understand one another’s feelings and communicate well.

The four guiding principles of motivational interviewing are:

  • not trying to fix a client or their behavior
  • understanding the client’s motivations
  • listening to the client
  • empowering the client

Setting Goals That Motivate Behavior

Goal setting is the process of finding the client’s ideal state, finding their current state, and then defining the actions needed to close the gap between the two.

When it is properly done, it is one of the most impactful strategies for motivating behavior due to goals providing clients with a sense of purpose, direction, and energy.

Effective goal plans include processes to increase the probability of goal achievement.

Long-term goals refer to a timeline of a year or more. they relate to outcome goals, which are ones where the end result is a specific desired outcome.

Short-term goals are ones where the client wishes to achieve something in the near future. This may be a few days to a few months.

A process goal is similar, as it is a goal that has the focuses on the process of action and it will lead to the desired end result.


This is an acronym to enable goals to be more objective.

S – specific: a goal should be well-defined and clear as to what the client intends to do.

M – measurable: a goal is easily able to be measured and tracked.

A – achievable: a goal should be able to be completed, otherwise it is bad for moral.

R – relevant: a goal should be something the client wants and it should relate to the program being designed.

T – time-bound: a goal should have a clear time frame.

Subjective goals are ones that are based on a subjective outcome that is dependent on the interpretation of the individual client.

Objective goals are the ones based on objective, quantifiable data that can be measured and evaluated.

Implementation Intention is a preset plan that links critical situations to goal-directed responses.

Monitoring is the process of observation and taking notice of routine behaviors that impact goal progress and achievement.

Use of Technology

Technology use has grown quite a bit in popularity within the fitness realm. Especially with the growth of fitness trackers, smartwatches, and mobile apps.

The most effective technological methods for tracking or monitoring health and fitness behaviors are those that fulfill a person’s needs outlined in the SDT.

Technology also works well for the promotion of autonomy, competence, and relatedness.


Feedback from personal trainers will help to assist a client’s perceived competence.

Clients will need to be in a feedback loop in order to develop proficiency in exercise movements and fitness levels.

It is important that mistakes are corrected for growth and development. Constructive criticism should be learned to ensure the effectiveness of corrections.

Many trainers focus on giving corrections only and do not spend sufficient time praising the positive behaviors the client goes through. This is just as important and needs to be a part of the loop.

ISSA Chapter 2: Psychology of Behavior Change 2
ISSA Chapter 2: Psychology of Behavior Change 3
ISSA Chapter 2: Psychology of Behavior Change 4

Tyler Read

Tyler Read, BSc, CPT. Tyler holds a B.S. in Kinesiology from Sonoma State University and is a certified personal trainer (CPT) with NASM (National Academy of sports medicine), and has over 15 years of experience working as a personal trainer. He is a published author of running start, and a frequent contributing author on Healthline and Eat this, not that.

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