Holiday Strategies – Three French Hens, Two Turtle Doves and a Change Your Client Can Stick With

The holidays. That wonderful time of year filled with family, fun, happiness and cheer. It’s a time to enjoy one another, relax, renew personal ties and reflect on the year as a whole. But with all the wonder of the season, there’s a dirty downside clients face within the busiest six weeks of the year: stress, anxiety, depression, monetary pressure, time constraints, and an abundance of emotions (and not just for the clients).

It’s that time of year when the hard work our clients have put into changing their lives finds a slippery slope into renewing bad habits. As we all understand, change is difficult for many without the additional stress of the holidays. In fact, several studies have indicated that holidays exacerbate stress, which can lead to overconsumption of food, alcohol and poor overall choices (Greenberg Quinland Rosner Research, 2006; Wider, 2003).

Stress affects everyone differently. Given the aptitude to be more kinesthetic, fitness professionals may find solace in physical outlets and because of our healthy desires we may find it easier to stick with our nutritional habits. We may not find ourselves knee-deep in chocolate candy wrappers or lying on the couch for hours exhausted from emotional stress because the in-laws are coming into town.

We know the tips and tricks to avoiding food triggers and we can do so with ease. But our clients don’t seem to have the same ability. Even with all the solid advice you give them each holiday season, they still end up losing the battle to the holiday buffet table. It’s an exhausting tug-of-war for you and the client, and in the end, you won’t win.

Imagine being caught up in all the frenzy of the season, feeling significantly more stress and anxiety from dealing with holiday pressures (is Aunt Jane coming to dinner? Is she still a vegetarian? Did I get the right present for John? How am I going to afford Susan’s gift she asked Santa for?) and then, on top of that, being asked to incorporate 10 strategies to overcome the buffet table, navigate a booze-filled party, avoid overeating mashed potatoes, and make time for the hours of exercise you were asked to get in to compensate for the poor food choices your trainer knew you would make. There’s just too much mental and emotional clutter for any client to survive unscathed (and without some added pounds) from the holidays.

So as professionals, what is the best way to help guide our clients through the holidays without ruining their current success or digging themselves deeper into the weight loss hole?

It’s simple. Ask them to do less, not more. Instead of throwing the kitchen sink of tips, tricks, and strategies at our clients to help them cope, strip clients of the clutter and ask them to do less. In fact, ask them to focus on ONE thing this holiday season to help them stay on track and no more than one.

Change does not come easy, especially in the midst of chaos. Between the id and the ego, as Freud describes our two sides of being (ration and emotion), or as University of Virginia psychologist Jonathon Haidt brilliantly describes as the elephant and the rider (Haidt, 2006), we are led by our emotions (the elephant) while our reason sits atop the elephant as the rider. The rider is relatively small in comparison to the elephant and if ever the rider and the elephant disagree, the rider will be powerless to control the elephant. Our clients struggle between the two systems of reason and emotion constantly. For example, when our clients are faced with a buffet table of cakes and cookies, their emotional “elephant” wants a quick payoff (grab a few cakes and cookies). The rider, their reason, can keep the emotional “elephant” in check for a short period of time (we call that willpower), but trying to control the elephant for too long will exhaust the rider. In the book, Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, the authors point to several studies that indicate self-control is an exhaustible resource. The bigger the change the individual is being asked to face, the more it will end up sapping their self-control (Heath & Heath, 2010). And that is how your clients end up with a plate full of cakes and cookies, gobbling them down with wild abandon. The elephant is just too strong for the rider.

So to help get your clients safely past the next six weeks, here are four things you can do with each and every client that will help them stay on target through the holidays:

1. Assess the situation & uncover the issue.

Everyone is different and every client will have different obstacles during the holidays. A lot of those obstacles may not even truly be related to food; over-eating may end up being the side effect as noted above. So take the time with each client to dig a bit and uncover the deeper issues. Sit down together and assess what your client feels are the biggest struggles they will face throughout the holidays. Help them identify their top three major obstacles and then work with them to determine which one obstacle creates the biggest problem for them.

Identify the three struggles:

“Okay, Elaine, we talked about how the holiday affects you. You feel extremely tired, you end up stressed because of all the things you feel you need to do to make the holiday perfect for everyone, and you feel like you have no time to do anything for yourself. Those things contribute to your struggle with performing your workouts and willpower at meal- times.” (Elaine struggles with fatigue, stress and time and those items exhaust her ability to stick with her food and exercise plan.)

Target the source of the problem:

“Elaine, after talking we determined that out of the three struggles, time is your biggest problem. With so much to do, not having enough time to run errands, cook and get your workouts in, increases your stress level and is stopping you from sleeping at night. Is that correct?” (Elaine now realizes that time is her enemy.) You’ve uncovered the real issue, time. If Elaine can manage her time more efficiently, this can help reduce her stress and increase her sleep as well as fit in a workout – leaving her feeling more peaceful and less fatigued. (And hopefully, less inclined to bury her feelings in a basket of biscuits.)

2. Shrink the change.

For clients to get through the holidays without reverting to their old bad habits, they need to be able to change their behavior (or stick with the changes you have helped them instill). This isn’t easy, especially in the face of so much pressure the holidays bring. So shrink the change – make it so small they can’t help but win every single day. Focus on one small change throughout the entire 6 weeks that can help them walk away from the holiday season feeling victorious.

“Elaine, we uncovered that was your biggest obstacle. You felt like you didn’t have enough time to get everything done, including your exercise plan, and that made you feel stressed, anxious and it kept you up at night worrying about how much you needed to do. So I have one goal for you this holiday season – and it has to do with time. I have a solution to help you gain more time: set your alarm for 10 minutes earlier each day. Do you think you can do that?”

Once you both agree on a solution to help Elaine gain more time in her day, Elaine must buy into the small change and it should seem so simple to her that she feels like it’s a no-brainer – of course she can accomplish it. In this case – only 10 minutes extra each day seems so simple to add.

3. Motivate their “Elephant”

Once you have a small change plan, you need to appeal to their emotional side. Emotions are the big, powerful elephants that move people toward (or away) from their goals. Help clients see or feel the change you want them to stick with. Remember, emotional appeals often work better than simply instructing clients on what to do.

In the case of Elaine, time was her issue. She didn’t feel like she had enough time to get everything done and her workout. So to appeal to her elephant, the very next session, we put her through a ten-minute workout session. We made sure the session could be done at home, it was intense enough to get her sweaty and it was no more than 10 minutes. At the end, she walked away drenched, feeling accomplished and couldn’t believe that it only took her 10 minutes to accomplish. She felt how much she could get done in ten minutes. And it helped her understand that she could get her workout done – and many more things – within a shorter time frame.

4. Provide simple, clear instruction.

After you have identified the real issues holding your clients hostage during the holidays and together you have determined one small action they can take each day to help them stay on track, the last step is making sure the path, or direction you provide, is crystal clear. The client should walk away knowing exactly what is expected and how they are to accomplish the task. Do not leave any wiggle room, or questions in their mind. The more direct, the better.

“Elaine, to help you get through the holidays without moving backwards, we talked about helping you make time to get everything done, including your workouts. We agreed that you would set your alarm to wake up 10 minutes earlier each day. In addition, I have created a ten-minute bodyweight workout for you to do on Monday, Wednesday and Friday right after you wake up. Each time the workout is completed, I want you to check the completed box on the workout sheet.”


The holiday season is overpowering, even for those with the strongest of willpower. There are far too many internal and external pressures, stresses and anxieties to expect clients to remember a list of do’s and don’ts to get them through the holidays without gaining a few extra pounds. All the tips, tricks and expert advice won’t stop an “elephant” from leading its rider off the right path. So instead, help them focus. Give them one small, accomplishable task that will help influence the behavior you want to see them maintain during the season. The smaller the better because you want your clients to survive the holidays feeling victorious. That will not only help instill the behavior long-term, it will allow them to also enjoy their holidays, instead of dreading them. Happy Holidays!


  1. Greenberg Quinland Rosner Research (2006). Holiday stress. Retrieved from: [http://www.apa. org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf](http://www.apa. org/news/press/releases/2006/12/holiday-stress.pdf).
  2. Wider, J. (2003). Holiday cheer means stress for women, Society for Women’s Health Research. Retrieved from:
  3. Haidt, J. (2006). The happiness hypothesis: Finding modern truth in ancient wisdom. Cambridge, MA: Basic Books.
  4. Heath, C., & Heath, D. (2010). Switch: How to change things when change is hard. New York, NY: Broadway Books.