My weird little career means I visit a lot of gyms. It also means I have seen a lot of gym T-shirts. Gym T-shirts fall broadly into these categories:

  • Ed Hardy Hard-ons

  • Inside jokes no one outside the 200 members will get

  • The vaguely misogynist/homophobic

  • The over-the-top patriotic

  • Well-designed, high quality garments that I’d be proud to wear

The largest sub-genre of gym T-shirts, however, seems to be the “no excuses” variety. I think this is fantastic because I too, believe there are no excuses.

Let’s say I’m at a cocktail party and someone makes the mistake of asking me what I do for a living. The next thing I usually hear is, “that sounds great. I could use a coach/trainer because…” What follows is a list of things or perceptions or barriers that are keeping the person who is talking from making decisions that are congruous with their health and fitness goals. “I know these are just excuses,” they confide in me. But they aren’t excuses. An excuse is a justification and rarely does the person feel justified by this list; they usually tell me they about how guilty they feel for not making better decisions and how embarrassing it is to have run into me at a cocktail party. But I make my living by not judging people for where they are at, and whether they are ready to believe it or not, I know they are at some stage of change.

The Transtheoretical Model of Behavior Change (TTM) was developed by James O. Prochaska in 1977 and has been used in the field of behavior change psychology for decades as a way of targeting the right interventions to the right people in order to maximize their success. It breaks down behavior change into 6 stages:

  • Pre-contemplation - “Shut up, I’m all good.”

  • Contemplation - “OK, maybe I’m not all good.”

  • Preparation - “Yeah, I’m thinking about getting better.”

  • Action - “I’m doing what I need to do to get better, dammit.”

  • Maintenance - “I’m better, but still working at it.”

  • Termination - “I’m pretty good and man, was I fooling myself back then.”

All of these stages of change are defined by the way people talk about their behavior, and the bulk of the stages are defined by how people talk about desired behavior. You’ll also notice that actual behavior isn’t changed until Stage 4. People, even the people who eventually change their behavior permanently, spend way more time thinking about change than actually changing their behavior. So yes, people talk a lot, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t doing something.

A lot of us make the mistake of thinking in absolutes. People are either fit, or fat. Motivated or unmotivated. Ready or making excuses. But as you can see from the TTM, there is usually a lot more going on under the surface and most thoughts about behavior change lie on a spectrum. By listening to the ways that people are talking about their desired behavior and asking questions that take their likely stage of change into account, social scientists in fields as diverse as smoking cessation, obesity, and physical activity have had more success using TTM even with people who did not feel like they were ready for change. The TTM has its critics (meta-analysis has been inconclusive), but as a practitioner the real usefulness of the TTM is that is provides a tool to figure out where people are at, which is one of the basic tenets any quality psychological skills model and just plain good coaching. So when I hear about all the things that are keeping a person at a cocktail party from working out, I know they aren’t excuses; they are  a roadmap to where that person is at and what kind of questions I should ask next.

It is important to remember that the difference between excuses and reasons is the feeling of justification. If people are telling you they, “want to change, but…” everything that follows the “but” is not an excuse; it’s an obstacle they want your help getting around. If they want to workout every day, but they hate waking up early, ask them how they could squeeze in a walk during their lunch break. If they want to eat healthier but have a sweet tooth, tell them about your favorite healthy desserts. Lower the bar so all they have to do is step over it to get to the next step.