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Exercise Psychology Examples and Benefits

teaching positive psychology for fitness clients

The Importance of Sport and Exercise Psychology

While we know that exercise psychology is derived from sport psychology, the field of sport psychology has also seen its own challenges on the path to acceptance within the domain of psychology. Currently, it has at the very least, come to be viewed as a distinct science.

Many trainers (and often professional psychology practitioners, as well) regard exercise psychology as psychological work with athletes. This approach tends to divert focus from all the unique research, practice, and literature of sport psychology. Today there is a place for this knowledge gained in the daily activities of the personal fitness trainer.

So, while the two have similar themes – yet distinct differences by definition – the underpinnings of all relationships with clients are best understood when we look at the big picture, so to speak. This perspective can be traced back to the work done in the past by both psychologists and experts within the realm of sport collectively.

How is Sport Psychology Different From Exercise Psychology?

To make things a little more complicated, we need to be aware of the key differences between sport and exercise psychology, too. There are several commonalities between the two kinds. But what really differentiates sport and exercise (therefore sport and exercise psychology as well) is the qualitative shift regarding performance and competition – which fall more appropriately under the topic of sports psychology. To understand this better, think about the dynamics involved when working with a team of athletes in competition versus the one-on-one structure of a personal fitness training dynamic.

Quick note:  Sports Psychology Coaching (as offered as a professional certification via Spencer Institute) is different than exercise psychology.

When compared to sports psychology (SP), exercise psychology (EP) tends to shift the emphasis of application to go beyond these conceptual discrepancies mentioned so far. But methodologies, goals, and purposes further delineate it from SP. Still, exercise psychology is a part of health psychology, just as sport psychology is a part of performance psychology. However, exercise psychology is more concerned with positive health outcomes, while sports psychology has its goals mainly in performance outcomes, as stated by Portenga and his colleagues.  Exercise psychology is taught as a component of the NESTA Personal Fitness Trainer Certification Course.

Just before the turn of the 20th century, the connection linking exercise and psychology was established in discussions given by philosopher and psychologist William James. In James’ view, it was important to recognize exercise and its role in supporting such mental attributes as sanity, serenity, approachability, and even good humor.

Continuing in this vein was the work of William Morgan, who wrote even more on the specifics of the relationship between exercise and other ‘various’ items tied to psychological interests such as mood, anxiety, and exercise adherence. Although considered vital to understanding EP now, Morgan was clearly ahead of his time.

So, we see that sport and exercise psychology have a lot in common historically and theoretically. The American Psychological Association has a division specifically related to both sport and exercise psychology (division 47). A goal-oriented personal fitness trainer will want to know how the differences between the two types are viewed by experts within the field of psychology, and how they affect their daily work with clients in terms of application.

Later, research would also establish a link, theorized previously, regarding the link between depression and exercise. Whereby it was suggested that a moderate amount of exercise was seen to be more helpful than not doing any exercise at all in the management of depression symptoms.

Exercise didn’t get as much attention or importance as an area of study until the ’50s and ‘60s when journal articles referencing research began to appear. Later, in 1968, the International Association of Sport Psychology presented several position statements at a gathering of sports psychologists in the United States.

Psychological Attributes and Issues Related to Exercise

The lifestyle of the modern man involves much less physical activity than what is seen as optimal by researchers and health professionals. We sit a lot, many people work practically without even being able to stand up for hours. We don’t have to walk to work or school; we drive a car or use public transportation. Not only our work or professional life but also how we seek entertainment has very little to do with physical activity. Watching TV or surfing the internet hardly requires any physical effort.

It is important to note, that inactivity is not responsible for obesity, which is very common. Especially in the USA, where nearly 65% of the adult population is overweight and the obesity situation among children is even worse. One in two children is – simply put – “fat”. Being overweight is not only an aesthetic matter or problem. Obesity is associated with other conditions, such as diabetes, cardiovascular problems, and generally poor health, just to name a few.

Psychological Attributes Related to Nutrition

Here we will look to make the connections between nutrition, psychology and your ability to be a successful trainer. How does this all fit together? If we know that a majority of our client’s success will be the result of reaching positive outcomes. Therefore, our ability to get our clients to their goals (results) is pivotal. In short, with nutrition in mind, we must understand many of the psychological factors for clients with challenges to their food intake and nourishment. We can help clients when we train them in our controlled environment, but what they do outside of the hour spent with the trainer can undermine progress very easily if poor nutrition were to be an obstacle or barrier for the client. The Lifestyle and Weight Management Specialist Certification combines nutrition and psychology.

Most people are somewhat aware of what it means to eat healthily. Still, many of us rarely eat food that would be considered good for our overall health. Think of the possible mental aspects involved when teaching a client to follow an eating plan. As trainers, we are up against some formidable, engrained habits. In the USA, our abundant intake of salt, preservatives, and carbohydrates is well known. Nutrition is covered more in another chapter but suffices it to say that we all should be able to understand and acknowledge the obvious.

At times, we will need to coach our clients to understand that improper eating habits can add to the negative effects of a sedentary lifestyle. Obviously, most clients know this, but that is where everything seems to break down. It is not enough to simply know the increased risks for various chronic diseases and illnesses. We must coach or train our clients for change.

The Psychology and Physiology of “Sedentary and “Obesity”

When combined, a sedentary lifestyle and obesity could easily be blamed for poor health, lower life quality, and lower satisfaction with one’s perceived happiness.

Research is showing us that ego, self-esteem, and levels of autonomy are negatively affected by obesity. Furthermore, Saito and his colleagues found in their study (2009) that obese patients can be effectively treated with a holistic medical care team in which physicians, registered dietitians, exercise trainers, and clinical psychologists were involved. The effects resulted not only in weight loss but also in more positive ego-states and better levels of autonomy. Exercise is being used as part of the solution or as an intervention strategy. This is a promising indicator of hope, derived from experimenting with a holistic approach to impact positive mental health.

What is the mechanism of how PA works to improve the body and its function? Regular exercising has two benefits. It works as a preventative and at the same time as a therapeutic measure. Exercise behavior is viewed as part of the so-called “Magic four”, which provides the individual with a longer life and better health status. The four factors are the principles of proper nutrition, sufficient sport or exercise participation, maintaining optimal body weight, and a non-smoking lifestyle. Obesity and inactivity are virtually implied in this list.

We can then perhaps agree that regular physical activity has positive effects on the physical, psychological and social sphere of the person. This has a significant correlation to the psychological profile of your client – and maintaining proper body weight through PA has direct ties to managing nutritional intake in women present with an eating disorder. For men, the figure is much less, but still, it is a mistake to assume that eating disorders are isolated solely among females in the general population. Eating disorders are present in nearly 1 million males.

We should also point out that the term “eating disorders” could easily be transposed to read “disordered eating”. By and large, disordered eating is statistically far more common than what is seen in the figures representing eating disorders. It is also less severe. But estimates put this phenomenon as a concern for nearly 65 million women in America. This number is staggering and means that, as a trainer, you are more than likely to encounter clients who are eating in a disordered manner. Still, disordered eating is generally viewed as less serious than a true eating disorder.

Case study:

Your client is a young, teenage female. She has been arriving for her sessions on time and ready for her workout with a good attitude and plenty of energy. Many times you’ve noticed that your client has a lack of energy once you are about halfway through her program design or session. Most of the time, your client seems to hit the wall, and she begins to struggle to get through the second half of her workout, yet the client reports adequate sleep and normal intake of food. As a concurrent theme to your training relationship with this client, she occasionally will ask you what you know about supplements, specifically those that are promoted to help with weight loss. The client confirms taking such supplements but is losing weight at an alarming rate (more than 1-2 pounds per week). What are some of the possible realities of this situation before you?

Disordered eating may include following strict food rules, eating the same “safe” foods every day, calorie restriction of fewer than 1,200 calories per day, obsessing or thinking about food for more than 50 percent of the time, compulsive or obsessive calorie tracking, daily or frequent weigh-ins, eating a lot of low-calorie foods and adopting a vegetarian diet solely for the purpose of weight loss.

One survey conducted recently revealed that 65% of the survey’s respondents described themselves as being overweight or obese. In this way, it isn’t very surprising that a similar percentage are apparently afflicted with behaviors similar to what we consider disordered eating among people who are trying to lose weight. Among American women, eating disorders are among the top 10 most frequent causes of disability. Anorexia nervosa, one of the most serious disorders among young females, is complex and will remain the focus of research for many years to come.

But what we do know of it now, is enough to put all trainers on alert for this problem seen among those who join fitness clubs to support extreme weight loss efforts. In fact, many afflicted with anorexia nervosa fit a profile worth noting. Most instances occur immediately after serious dieting, which somehow gets out of control. The profile also includes such identifiers as coming from stable homes, being successful in career pursuits, and being relatively affluent. It is also typical for someone suffering from anorexia nervosa to deny their behavior and/or to fail to acknowledge that their appearance – sometimes described as skeletal – is anything to be alarmed at or even unusual. Some will still even insist that they are overweight in this stat

When we examine the causes of anorexia nervosa or bulimia (a disorder in which a person binges on large amounts of food, followed by efforts to purge the food through vomiting or other means), we also must understand what the research is currently telling us. That even though there are verifiable physiological or biological causes for these disorders, we cannot overlook

the influence of social roots in their manifestation. Trainers and coaches working in the field already know this.

In addition to physiological or biological roots, it is also believed that those presenting with anorexia nervosa and or bulimia demonstrate that they process information about food differently from that healthy individuals when scans of the brain can be observed.

Researchers maintain that people with anorexia nervosa and/or bulimia tend to be preoccupied with their body weight and will, therefore, take to heart the thought that one can never be too thin. This might help to explain why some eating disorders tend to increase as developing countries become more westernized and dieting (restricting calories) becomes even more popular among the general population. We are not saying that your client is likely to have an eating disorder, but to be aware that the possibility exists.

Some psychologists have suggested that eating disorders can be the result of overly demanding parents or other family problems in the client’s life. The complete explanations for anorexia nervosa and bulimia will probably remain elusive for some time.

But since we know that these disorders seem to come from both biological and social causes, that successful treatment will probably encompass different strategies. It’s important to remember that as personal fitness trainers or group exercise instructors, we do not diagnose or treat an eating disorder. And this is probably best, given that even discussing such topics can be difficult.

Working with clients on these concerns may be inappropriate if you are not sufficiently trained to do so. Always refer your clients who present with eating disorders, to a qualified professional who can help or intervene professionally.

If you are ready to add exercise psychology to your fitness career, the NESTA Personal Fitness Trainer Course is a great addition.

That’s it for now.

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