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If an overweight client doesn’t deal with the feelings associated with their weight gain, there’s a good chance they will stay that way says Stephanie Weichert.

An old donkey fell down a well and found itself unable to climb out. The donkey cried piteously for hours. Realising he wouldn’t be able to lift it out, the farmer, with the help of his neighbours, decided to cover up the poor creature. However, instead of letting itself become buried by the dirt, the donkey shook off each shovel-full and used the fresh mound as a stepping stool. As the farmer and his neighbours continued to shovel dirt into the well, the donkey continued to shake it off and step up until it was able to step out of the well.

This is the perfect model for how we should react when we feel as though we are being buried in problems. Naturally resilient people tend to think this way. However, when a client has been overweight for a long period of time, they can lose confidence in their ability to lose fat and gain a strong, healthy physique. They may not only feel stuck with scales that won’t budge, but also buried in problems that keep them feeling unlovable and like they are ‘not enough’.

An investment in hope

As a trainer, what happens when you deliver your client the workout of their life week after week, and supply them with information about healthy eating, and there is little to no change? It’s hard to remember, but you just may be the only person in your client’s life supporting them in their struggle to transform their body. The reason they got and stayed stuck had nothing to do with food. Yes, the food made them fat, but fat is only a physical manifestation of a deeper issue.

The reason your client continues to return isn’t because you make them do cardio or strength training – it’s because they see you as an investment in hope. The encouragement and motivation you provide causes them to feel hope for a different future – a future with less emotional and physical pain.

Digging deeper

After they’ve lifted the weights, broken sweat and have been advised to ‘shop the perimeter’ of the supermarket (i.e. the fresh produce), what else can you do to help clients? I suggest you do something with far greater potential for effecting long term change: uncover their reasons for being stuck and learn their motivations for moving forward.

Recently I delivered a life-coaching workshop. One attendee who was in his early fifties shared with the group that his biggest goal was to lose weight. My aim was to uncover which feelings he’d been experiencing that had been holding him back from success or happiness.

‘What feelings do you feel on a daily or weekly basis that you don’t want to feel, but you experience anyway?’ I asked him. This strategy for the first question was based on ‘Away From Values’, taken from Robbins-Madanes Coach Training. The list of answers to this question typically includes words like ‘angry’, ‘depressed’, ‘hopeless’, ‘resentment’ and ‘self-pity’. Although I usually solicit about five words from a volunteer, one phrase that he mentioned particularly stood out: ‘I feel like a failure.’ These words seemed strange considering he was a highly successful man who had earned his masters degree and had nearly 20 years’ experience. From the outside, he was anything but a failure.

Next, I sought to uncover what in his life brought out these feelings. I asked him to outline the events of his day starting from the time he woke up until the time he went to sleep. He began to detail the events of an average day and by doing so, he realised that by midday he had experienced all of the negative feelings on his list, including feeling like a failure.

The problem wasn’t that he was a failure; the problem was in how he chose to view the events of the day. By mid-morning, after checking emails, staff members would begin arriving at his door to ask for help with assorted problems. Instead of embracing their problems as something he could help them solve themselves, he viewed their problems as his own – and ones that he could not solve by himself in a short timeframe. This made him feel anxious about receiving them in the first place.

My volunteer considered the problems an intrusion, an interruption to his day. However, dealing with these issues was actually part of his job. Because of the anxiety he experienced dealing with these ‘interruptions’, he would go to McDonalds to eat a cheeseburger, a large fries and, on particularly bad days, drink a milkshake. He felt like he could bring certainty to his life by selecting something that would make him feel good as he ate it.

I did a follow-up workshop for the same group one month later. The volunteer had already lost four kilos. What had changed? He had recognised that the interruptions were an opportunity to help mentor his staff members. He realised that he did not have to solve each of their issues – he simply needed to coach them to answer their own problems.

When he began to take on less ownership of his staff members’ issues, he felt less anxiety and less need for ‘comfort eating’. Consequently, he made wiser choices for lunch, making his weight loss relatively easy. He didn’t have to spend three hours at the gym or starve himself, he simply made different choices based on recognising the feelings that had caused the unhealthy patterns.

The exercise I took him through is mostly about mindfulness. We know that our habit patterns can cause undesirable results. The problem is, the habit pattern is based on feelings. If a client doesn’t deal with the feelings associated with their weight gain and the reasons for staying overweight, there is a good chance they will stay that way.

Connect with your client

Your client’s goal of weight loss, while meaningful, is not the end goal. The end goal is to feel more vibrant, like the way they look and have more energy. When you connect with how they are feeling and you understand what is driving them toward their goal, you can make more significant headway.

You don’t have to pretend to be a psychologist to use this strategy – it’s simple coaching. After asking them to list a few feelings they would rather not experience each day, and after they have explained how they wind up experiencing them anyway, you can ask your client to come up with strategies to change the way they look at a situation or actually change their actions each day in order to feel happier. This is like shoveling information (instead of dirt) and watching them continue to step up until they are no longer bound by the walls of the proverbial well.

I didn’t tell my volunteer how to change – I simply reflected the information back to him and asked him to create his own strategies for climbing out of the emotional rut. Sounds simple, and it is. Simple but powerful. When your clients are able to break the habit patterns causing them to stay unhealthy, they can begin making positive choices that support their goal of feeling good again and losing weight.

Your client may not initially have the resilience of the donkey in the story, but it doesn’t mean they can’t learn how to think that way. Just like proper form comes with training, for those who don’t naturally have it, resilient thinking comes with training too. Remembering that you might be the only hope your client has in moving them towards better health, I suggest you don’t end your training session on the mat stretching. Instead, how about ending your sessions by training them in the skills they can use to help change their behaviours on all the days that they don’t train with you in the gym?

Stephanie Weichert
Stephanie is a certified life and executive coach, strategic interventionist, published author, speaker, and strategic director for START Fitness®, the longest-running Boot Camp fitness program in the USA. She is also certified as a personal trainer through the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and has a BA from San Francisco State University. For more information visit

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