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As a young, naive 18-year old; sport was all that mattered to me, but it was 1980, long before the evolution of the professional athlete. My route to fulfilment was to join the Royal Air Force as a Fitness Instructor to pursue my ambitions of playing sport at the highest of levels.
What was my role as a fresh out of school military fitness guy? Well my early philosophy was: “work hard; train hard; play hard”! It got me success; fantastic sport, exercise every day and I surrounded myself with like-minded people. See what I mean about naivety – there were over 90,000 RAF personnel in those days and I had migrated toward the minority, less than 1% of that entire population and on reflection they did not need any help from me. This group were already highly motivated, successful sportsmen and women that did not need any additional encouragement to exercise – for 10-years I was blind to the remaining 99%, many of which were crying out for help but were not going to approach the egotistical sports ‘freaks’ at the ‘free to access’ gyms that were on every military establishment
It was only as I moved through my thirties and injuries forced me to retire from competitive sport that I started to realise the stupidity of my own actions. Being active for sport was temporary for some and not relevant to many others; but leading a healthier lifestyle carried a much higher level of importance to many of the Servicemen and their families that I had ignored for many years.
I had found my new motivation in life and became fascinated by the challenges of promoting healthier lifestyles and more interestingly trying to encourage those that I had ignored for so long, to engage in activity and improve their eating habits.
Prochaska and DiClemente’s Stages of Change Model, 1983 became the bedrock of my whole new philosophy. Being part of the 99% group, I had finally realized that we all, in some way, set goals with enthusiasm and belief but many lapsed before this ‘new’ approach could become a habit or consistent behavior. I became more empathetic with the January new arrivals at the gym but lost contact with them by mid-February, sound familiar??
I soon realized that the gym was a major barrier to most and it wasn’t down to finance as it was free in the RAF. I would need to find a way of making activity more intrinsic and found some of the techniques and approaches used by Stephen Rollnick, within his motivational Interviewing Programme to be very effective.
I was guilty of presenting barriers as a reason not to do things and when people tried to break those barriers down for me, they actually became more rigid. This made me appreciate that we need to respect those ‘barriers’ but still find ways of helping people to overcome them.
Applying Rollnick’s principles of establishing levels of importance of a goal/target was a critical factor but building an individual’s level of confidence was vital. As people got older the importance of adopting a healthier regime seemed to increase but some of those ‘unhealthy’ behaviours were now well established habits, that if broken would somehow leave people’s lives empty. Stopping smoking is a monumental challenge, boozy nights out and takeaways were regular fixtures in the calendar and feeling tired after a hard day was a reason to avoid activity.
With years of experience I have found that establishing a strong need for lifestyle change to be essential. This has been made easier, with online programmes and clinical tools such as Q-Risk – used in the NHS for calculating Cardio vascular Risk. Adding these tools into face-to-face guidance from qualified health professionals can help to address the confidence element; especially if the engagement is delivered with empathy and a realization of the individual’s barriers and personal circumstances.
I have been working at New Leaf Health since 2006 and with the limited time we get with employees in their workplace, I have grown to value the importance of ‘Know Your Numbers’ initiatives. By establishing people’s cholesterol, blood pressure, body fat, BMI etc… it makes the goal-setting session more personalized and high in importance. The confidence levels are raised by making any changes quite small and realistic, but most importantly helping people to visualize those changes and get them to realise that to relapse is not a failure, as long as it is only temporary.
So; were my early years as a fitness instructor wasted? I could have definitely been more affective and approachable, but I lacked the empathetic qualities required and therefore feel that my goal setting would have lacked belief. My message from my personal journey is to always reflect on what we are trying to achieve and try and stand back to appreciate the full picture…
Let me know your thoughts and experiences, some of which I may include in my next Blog, send to: