Fruits and vegetables next to notebook for tracking food to reach fitness goal

Using Motivational Interviewing to Reach Fitness Goals

Learn how to use “change talk” to your advantage.

Motivational interviewing (MI) is a technique used by many professionals, not just psychotherapists, to help guide a person towards making meaningful changes in life. In psychotherapy many individuals come to treatment because they want to make a change, so a therapist that is well versed in MI will often draw upon many MI techniques to help the client move through the stages of change. Motivational interviewing is an evidence-based approach that decreases ambivalence (feeling more than one way about a certain situation) and increases intrinsic motivation towards change. This interviewing style can be very effective in making progress with fitness and nutrition goals.

In the therapy office, the MI clinician often works to elicit “change talk,” where a client verbalizes motivation to make positive changes in the desired direction. One technique to elicit change talk is by using the acronym DARN-CAT. The client will be asked about their; Desire to change, Ability to change, Reasons to change, Need to change, Commitment to change, Actuation (statements about willingness to change), and Taking steps (or steps taken) towards change.

Whenever anyone is prompted to answer these questions, they are using “change talk”, and we can all be checking in with our motivation by asking ourselves these questions on a daily basis.

Desire to change: Ask yourself, “How bad do I want this?” and rate it from 0-10. Write down your answer and why you ranked it as such. For example: “My desire to change is an 8/10. I really want this and it has been too long!”

Ability to change: How able are you to make this change from 0-10? 10 means that you have the complete ability to make it happen, and 0 means impossible. Write down your answer and rationale, for example: “My ability to lose 10 pounds is a 10/10. I have done it before, I know I can do it again”

Reasons to change: Jot down some reasons to make this change, for example, “Becoming more fit will make me more active for my kids, I will feel better overall, it will improve my mental health, etc.”

Need to change: Rank, from 0-10, how badly you need to make this change and write a sentence why you ranked your need this way. For example, “I must make this change, it is a 9/10. It has been too long and my doctors have all been telling me that my excess weight is affecting my health. I really need to make this change!”

Commitment to change: Note how committed we are to making this change (from 0-10) and why. This may look like, “I am very committed- it is a 9/10. I am ready to make this change and I know that I can commit to this diet plan. In other words, I am all in!”

Actuation: Write down some statements about your willingness to change and rank it from 0-10. These statements might sound like, “I am ready to make this change and I am completely willing to put in the effort for this” or, “My willingness to change is a 10/10- I am completely ready and willing to put in the work!”

Taking steps: Write down the steps you have taken, or will take soon. This may sound like, “I have my gym membership and all of my healthy food is prepared for the week. I will be going to the gym from 8:00-9:00 each day and I will be following my meal plan”

Challenge yourself to write down all areas of “DARN-CAT” and reflect on the answers. Having these responses written out will help you tune into your own intrinsic motivation! Your DARN-CAT responses should be a living document because it is completely normal for your motivation to wax and wane. When motivation does change, recognizing these fluctuations can be very helpful for keeping us committed to the change we want to make. Also, when reflecting on your answers, ask yourself why you rated your specific area (when appropriate) the rating that you did and why it wasn’t lower. For example, if you rated your Desire as 9 out of 10, ask, “Why a 9 and not an 8?” You will probably answer something like, “I really do want this, it is extremely important to me!” Answering these questions automatically makes us speak in ‘change talk’ which is fantastic for increasing our motivation.


Using MI techniques can be very helpful for sustaining motivation to make change but it is certainly not the only source of motivation. Along with doing some individual work on our motivation, it also helps when we have a support group that holds us accountable. Many folks working on making a change find great benefits from attending group fitness classes, working out with a partner or hiring a personal trainer. For example, Fitness with Friends located in Northern New Jersey offers group/individual training sessions where there is a strong community aspect. Lots of clients from Fitness with Friends report that the group/community aspect of the program keeps them motivated and sticking with their change.

Studies show that motivational interviewing in psychotherapy can be very effective for making positive, healthy changes in one’s life regarding nutrition and exercise. If this is something that you are interested in exploring, we highly recommend seeking out a therapist trained in MI to dig deeper into any barriers for motivation that may exist.