I urge personal trainers, after mastering the science of physical change, to pursue mastery of the evocation of fear. Many personal trainers vehemently reject the statement, and I anticipate that many who experience the knee-jerk rejection will come to understand the virtues of the point being made. I want to share those thoughts and theories that have allowed me to find ease in turning "I know I should...but" into "Yes, yes, yes."

I theorize that there is no greater motivator than channeled fear. I further theorize there are few emotions more crippling than anxiety. There is a distinctive difference between fear and anxiety, one that should be understood by anyone seeking enhanced persuasion skills.

Anxiety is a general sense of uncomfortable apprehension. It causes tentative pursuit, indecision, uncertainty, and it can be self-perpetuating. Anxiety can be expressed as "I'm worried about my health" or "I'm feeling nervous about my lack of energy." When anxiety can be directed toward something specific, a menace that can be defeated, eliminated or dissolved, that anxiety can prompt directed action initiated by the conversion of anxiety into fear.

Eavesdropping on the Real World
Mitch's wife watches him coming down the steps, first his shoes, then his knees, then€¦

"Your pants are so tight; you look like the waistline is going to burst."
"Ah, c'mon. These are a 37" waist."
"Well, they're too tight."
"Can't we go to dinner without the commentary? There's no way my waist is more than 37". I'm just bloated from the junk we ate last week."
"Get yourself to the gym. You're getting too fat."
"I don't have time. It's tax season."
Mitch, the following day, enters Juan's house to watch the MMA championships on the big LCD screen. Juan, surrounded by four buddies, almost chokes on his beer.
"Mitch, what month are you in?"
"Oh, like you guys are all ab models?"
"Hey, at least we work out. Why don't you come with us for a bike ride Saturday?"
"I can't. That's my morning with the kids."

If only Mitch could be zipped away to a private corner for the following mindset shift:

"Mitch, my name is the Angel of Death, and this is the Grim Reaper. You have three minutes. Say goodbye to your family."
"What?! No! Please!! I'll do anything. I'll eat fiber! I'll stop drinking alcohol! I'll even drink those horrible green drinks my wife mixes up. I'll join the gym! I'll walk, I'll run, I'll even use the health club machines. I'll even take yoga if I have to. I'm ready to go to the gym now! Gotta go guys, I have a membership to buy."
The Reaper speaks from beneath his hood, "Mitch, joining a gym doesn't do anything for most people. It's time for you to say goodbye. You've already wasted a minute and a half. Of course, if you committed to retain and listen to a personal trainer..."
"Yes! Yes! Yes!"

Mitch was anxious about his waistline, his wife's opinions and the ribbing he'd get from his buddies. He rationally understood the direction he was headed, but without directing that anxiety into fear of an impending moment of dread, he gets swallowed by procrastination.

Fear Works
Salespeople use it. I know. I was on the receiving end of the "baby-proofing evaluation." The "expert" loved my house. He admired the square cocktail table as he assured me the sharp corner protector and padding was only $45. He counted electrical outlets and gave me the option of buying cheap outlet protectors that work most of the time.

Why would we need to strike additional fear in someone like Mitch? Shouldn't he have the ability and desire to channel that anxiety that plagues him? Doesn't he read about the correlation between a growing waistline and type 2 diabetes? Doesn't he realize he's deteriorating? Sure he does, but that isn't always enough to prompt action.

As our population finds mid-life and "ordinary" aging includes hypertension, glucose meds and aches and pains, doctors pay more attention to the prescription pad than to sounding the fear alarm. As hamstrings shorten and discs degenerate, there's gradual discomfort, and the gradual onset mixed with only periodic pain leads to that stifling sense of anxiety, the "maybe if I just rest it" thought process. That's where motivation takes a hike.

As fit trainers, we believe the marketplace should subscribe to rational thought and realize that exercise is a need. We have trouble accepting flawed thinking as genuine. We fall victim to the belief that if someone really needs help, they'll reach out. Without fear, many remain stuck; worse yet, they have one foot leaving the land of the healthy, the rest of their bodies soon to follow.

Here's where I face condemnation. We're trainers. We're the good guys. We care about people. How in the world could I suggest we use such offensive and hurtful emotion? We have something real. We can speak rationally. We can tell people about LDL and HDL ratios and explain how exercise can lessen risk of heart disease.

I find no pleasure in evoking fear. I do, however, find great joy in having the power to positively impact the life of another, and fear opens that door in countless cases. Fear is a biochemical leap from anxiety, and that biochemical leap sends out powerful signals urging the affected party to act

A Glimpse at Science
You're familiar with the fight-or-flight response in that you understand that excitation prompts biochemical action (adrenal activity). That action creates a neurological and hormonal environment where energies are enhanced and impulse is automatic. You don't think long and hard about slugging the attacker, you do it first and think about it later.

If you can accept that example as evidence of the biochemical link between fear and action, you can remain open to evidence supporting motivational drive being induced by peptide hormones that become elevated in plasma and cerebrospinal fluid under fear conditions. Science reveals that the hormonal messenger corticotropin releasing factor (CSF) controls the intensity of fear, and it can be activated exponentially when the fear signal causes neurons in the hypothalamic nuclei to use stored memories to amplify the fear signal.

Why does someone who had a heart attack, a near-death experience, suddenly find the motivation to change nutritional intake and exercise habits, even if they'd never been able to change before? The heart attack experience brought about intense fear, and that fear gets stored. Neurologically, the stored signals gang up to recreate the highest experienced degree of motivation.

If we could theoretically increase the level of fear early on, before inflammatory disease leads to a heart attack, we might be more effective in preventing cardiac episodes. If we could theoretically help people link an expanding waistline to the thought of reduced capacity limiting "play-ability" with a young son or daughter, we can likely spark action sooner and more powerfully than we could by using the waist measurement itself as an intended motivator.

If a 48-year-old man finds out his blood sugar's high, and the doctor casually prescribes metformin, the message is, "Take the meds, and you'll be fine." Suppose that same 48-year-old man was sent into a room to watch a video about a 49-year-old man having his foot amputated shortly after being diagnosed with diabetes. Wouldn't the action stimulus be heightened?
I'm not suggesting we make a practice of scaring our prospective clients to the near-death point, but I have found virtue in contrasting the possible outcomes of neglect with the possible outcomes of proactive response. "Die, or love your life" is a pretty powerful contrast.

Fear as an Ally
If we want to convert prospects into clients, we want to use fear as an ally. No, we need not be in-your-face, throwing out ghoulish predictions, and I'm not suggesting anyone make fear the cornerstone of their business operations. Laugh with your clients, as laughter prompts a body chemistry ideal for bonding. Inspire your clients, as they'll benefit from the images and self-talk you implant in their minds. Be who you are. Be positive, joyous and empowering, but don't get caught up in believing positive thinking is the key to all success.

Appropriate response in moving toward any goal is a more valuable key, and by sharing hard-hitting realities, actual statistics and by asking questions that prompt realizations, we can quickly turn indecision into yes, quickly escalate our perceived value among those who need our services and quickly reposition the fitness professional as an absolute need for a marketplace headed toward abysmal health.

Scare someone into health and happiness, and experience the joy of giving someone back a well-deserved life!

Phil Kaplan shares success skills and strategies with fitness professionals worldwide. Visit for information on his Be Better Project and Benevolent Uprising Tour, and watch for Phil's newest book, The NAVAQA Formula: Emotional Persuasion for Fitness Pros.