What's the 'Secret Sauce' to Help Patients Move More?

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD


March 21, 2023

"Just Do It" is a cute marketing slogan. But let's face it: Clinically, it doesn't work well. Most people just don't exercise. The recommended amount of weekly physical activity is 2.5 hours (150 minutes), but less than half of adults over 18 meet the guidelines for aerobic exercise, according to recent data from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD

Furthermore, when surveyed about aerobic exercise and strength training, only 24.6% meet these weekly recommendations. These low rates of physical activity are alarming, given the immense benefits of exercise in improving mental and physical health and well-being.

Many people know that exercise is good for them but struggle to go workout consistently. I know firsthand how challenging this can be. In addition to being an integrative obesity specialist, I have gone from 0 minutes of physical activity in 2014 to becoming a fitness enthusiast who's run more than 5300 miles over 8 years. I know that as doctors and clinicians, we can profoundly influence our patients' exercise journey.

Here are five tips to help motivate your patients make the change from "I Won't Do It" to "I'm Doing It."

Tip 1: '[Clinician], Heal Thyself'

Data don't lie. Doctors who move more are more likely to counsel patients on exercise. I've been the doctor on both sides of the exercise spectrum. At my heaviest weight and lowest physical activity level, I felt hypocritical counseling patients on exercise.

If and when I counseled my patients on exercise, it was very directive and impersonal. When I started running consistently, I went to the opposite end of the spectrum. In my running zeal, it took a while for me to understand that not everyone wants to run dozens of miles a week. Shocking! Some people can't handle intense workouts. The "I did it so you can too" perspective wasn't helpful for long-term change in most patients.

What has been beneficial is recalling the obstacles and emotions I had (and still have) with staying consistent with physical activity. When physicians and clinicians move regularly, we're more equipped to give our patients genuine counseling based on practicality rather than theory.

Now that self-reflection has been addressed, let's get to patient counseling.

Tip 2: Motivate, Don't Berate

Lectures on why patients should exercise are less helpful than asking, "Why aren't you able to exercise more often?"

Asking open-ended questions is essential in motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing promotes behavioral change through collaborative conversation.

Instead of telling the patient what to do, motivational interviewing seeks to establish a person's why and create an effective plan based on their motivation. Asking open-ended questions is also helpful in determining any challenges to regular exercise, rather than calling these challenges "excuses," which can be counterproductive.

I encourage patients to embrace challenges as opportunities for improvement. If they say, "I can't find time to work out," I suggest that they create time to work out by walking 10-15 minutes during lunch or after dinner. The information gleaned from open-ended questions helps set practical SMARTER goals, which we will discuss next. 

Tip 3: Set SMARTER Goals

After assessing the patient's motivation and barriers, use this information to transform their desire to change into an actionable plan through a SMARTER goal. SMARTER stands for Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Time-Sensitive, Enjoyable, and Rewarding. Practical goals have each of these components. That's why "Just Do It" or even "Exercise 150 minutes a week" isn't a clear path for actionable change. SMARTER goals go beyond what to do and help people personalize how to change.

For example, the SMARTER version of "Exercise 150 minutes a week" for a busy person who works 50 hours a week may look like this: "My goal is to incorporate 150 minutes of physical activity through 60 minutes of aerobic exercise Monday through Friday (20-minute lunch walks) and 90 minutes of combination resistance training on the weekend (two 45-minute sessions) while listening to my favorite music. To meet my goal, I will reward myself by calling a friend to catch up or buy myself a new workout outfit."

Exercise prescriptions are another helpful way to empower patients with a realistic exercise strategy. In my practice, I developed my own exercise prescription which focuses on overcoming time barriers to exercise and finding personally enjoyable exercises. To enhance self-directed physical activity, I've found it useful to have patients complete part of the "exercise prescription" on their own before or after their visit.

Tip 4: Use Accountability Tools

Making a SMARTER goal is one thing, but sticking with it takes regular reinforcement. Even with the best plan, once patients leave the office, there are many distractions from their goals. Accountability is the secret sauce to cultivating consistency. Fitness trackers are an affordable form of accountability. Studies show that wearing a fitness tracker can help people get up to 40 minutes of extra walking compared with people who don't wear trackers.

Additionally, clinicians can use different ways to offer exercise accountability. For example, more frequent check-ins, individually or in groups, can be helpful. The increase in telehealth has made interval visits easier. Reimbursement and time can limit clinician-level accountability, however. Other options are referring patients to online support groups or programs sponsored by the government or organizations. For years, I co-led a Walk With a Doc chapter in Richmond, Virginia. There are chapters throughout the country.

Tip 5: Prepare and PLAN for Setbacks

Breaking news: Most plans don't go quite as envisioned. Accounting for the potential of setbacks early on helps patients set realistic expectations. As physicians and clinicians, we can help our patients anticipate a few likely obstacles. This may lessen the impact when a setback occurs. Also, it's helpful to have the patient prepare for a setback with a PLAN for recovering quickly. PLAN stands for Ponder what happened; Learn from it; Adjust the original goal; Now get back on track. Getting back on track as soon as possible is important to keep patients motivated and prevent muscle deconditioning.

Exercise is medicine. Physical inactivity is a leading contributor to many preventable diseases. Although the physical activity statistics are disappointing, improvement is possible. Many systemic changes are needed to increase physical activity on a population level.

While waiting for more extensive changes, we have the power to equip patients with personalized, actionable tools for improving and maintaining physical activity.

We can transform one person at a time through our clinical encounters. Let's use effective tools to help patients shift from "I Won't Do It" to "I'm Doing It."

Sylvia Gonsahn-Bollie, MD, DipABOM, is an integrative obesity specialist focused on individualized solutions for emotional and biological overeating. Connect with her at or on Instagram @embraceyoumd. Her bestselling book, Embrace You: Your Guide to Transforming Weight Loss Misconceptions Into Lifelong Wellness, was's Best Overall Weight Loss Book of 2022 and one of's 8 Best Weight-Loss Books to Read in 2022.

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