I remember going to physiotherapy when I was in high school and having my exercises prescribed to me for my knee pain. I was instructed to do them every day, which I think I may have managed to do for about a week. Past that, they tapered down to as little as once per week only, followed by lies to my physio about doing them regularly.
Was I just a bad client? Maybe. Let’s fast-forward a decade or so, though.
When I began my career as an Athletic Therapist, I would instruct my patients along the same lines. Do the exercises every single day in order to get better. It’s the standard I wanted and, if nothing else, it would make the clients exercise to some extent.
But my method didn’t work.
Adherence to my instructions was poor and my clients had a difficult time getting better. Truth, maybe there are “bad clients” out there, but at some point, you have to look at the coach rather than the players. Which brings us to the key error so common to many of our practices:
“I tell my clients to do their exercises every single day knowing that they won’t, but at least, then, they’ll do them every other day.”
Does this sound familiar?
As health practitioners, we’re used to working with patients who are only partially or completely non-compliant when it comes to their exercise rehab. As a result, we become accustomed to “tricks” in order to get them to exercise and be able to recover.
However, if you’ve used the above trick in the past, I’m sorry to say that you’re terribly misguided. (As I was.)
Let’s consider that by saying this, we’re raising the expectations for a patient to what is, for all intents and purposes, an unrealistic level. (If it was realistic, then we wouldn’t be assuming failure on the client’s part.) Now ask yourself, have unrealistic expectations ever proven to be a formula for success?
We know this to not work with raising children or dieting, so why in the world do we assume this to be effective when it comes to rehab?
Poor exercise adherence has been shown to be, in large part, due to anxiety regarding the process and an expectation of failure. Think about it; if we’re told that we absolutely need to do 100% to recover, but we know we won’t achieve that 100%, are we going to be motivated to do 50% in hopes that it will be enough? Not likely!
More likely, the guilt of not adhering completely will derail the behaviour change altogether.
So, I’m sorry, there is no easy and effective “trick” such as simply telling a patient to perform a mile while expecting an inch. Instead, actual investment in coaching patients through their exercise barriers is required.
Such coaching techniques include:
- Helping them understand the starting process and develop a feeling of control
- Understanding their hesitations regarding exercise
- Finding exercise and time routines that work with their lifestyles
- Making small changes at a time
- Developing relapse expectation and management
So, let’s look into how we can take those points and put them into action with our patients.
As clinical professionals trying to induce behavioural changes, we need to ensure our patients have a thorough understanding of the recovery process and the importance of exercise. With this understanding, clients will develop a feeling of control over their recovery and become motivated by being able to see the direct benefit of their actions.
If a patient has barriers to physical activity, you’re allowed to dig a little bit to understand them for yourself.
Perhaps it’s that anxiety about the process, which education will address. Maybe it’s a time constraint or limited equipment-availability, which signals the need to carefully strategize with their plan. The patient could simply hate the idea of exercising, and so you might have to come up with something that does not necessarily feel like formal exercise.
Discussing these obstacles with your patient will let them know you’re investing time and energy in creating the right plan for them and create trust between the two of you.
Which brings us to…
Individualizing Their Routine
If you have a go-to-patient that is hyped and happy to set aside 30 minutes per day and run through all of their rehab homework daily, then great. For the rest, we need to explore different methods.
For some patients, requesting their rehab exercises to be done every 2-3 days might be the realistic and attainable option. You can also consider programming them as a warm-up before working out, sports, or even just going out to walk, which is great for those with perceived time-restrictions.
Split-routines are an effective method as well, especially when it comes to combatting boredom or monotony. If you have six exercises you want your patient to do, try splitting them into three on one day and three on the other.
Finally, for those who are averse to traditional exercise, in general, you might have to be a bit more creative and find movements that are fun or don’t resemble the “work” of a workout. What I find beneficial is simply reintroducing the activities that patients want to do upon recovery as graded-exposure therapy.
Throughout all this, though, let’s remember to make small changes to lifestyle at a time. As we know, gradual modifications are much more successful in the long-term than massive overhauls.
Develop A Relapse Plan
Finally, it’s crucial we create somewhat of a risk-management plan with our clients.
A lot of things can potentially derail an individual’s adherence to change. Missing a day or two of exercise might demotivate someone from continuing further. A relapse of pain might be the clincher that causes a patient to give up and think they failed. Even simple life events might throw a wedge into the ability for someone to focus on their health.
In these cases, I drive home the point that relapses and derails are likely to happen. By predicting the possibility, we can create methods of coping and moving on. Let a patient know that it’s ok if they miss a day or even a week of exercise and that they’ll continue to reap the benefits as soon as they get back on the horse.
Pain relapses should be normalized as an expected event, and if the patient can use it as a learning opportunity rather than as a sign of a failed recovery. Like with anything we do in life, recovery will involve ups, downs, and plateaus to work around.
In truth, this ability to work with a client to create longer-term habits and adherence is something that many fitness professionals commonly excel at over medical ones. Personal trainers know that it’s an easy way to lose their client by telling them to do cardio six times per week or that they need to work out for three hours per day. Bringing those expectations back down to a realistic level and adjusting their plans as the client changes are the sure-fire way to success. Cookie-cutting a method for motivating that person to exercise is as bad as cookie-cutting the program itself. We have a duty to individualize our patients routine which includes the frequency basis on which it’s performed. And don’t expect failure; aim for success.