That might seem like a strange thing for a Certified Personal Trainer to say, but hear me out:
I've worked as a trainer both in public gyms, and doing at home sessions for several years now, and I've noticed something of a pattern that happens with potential clients. When they first explain their goals to you as a trainer, they all want to be "in better shape". This seems like a pretty obvious answer, but there's a second step, which is me asking them what their definition of "in shape" actually is. A very simple way for me to demonstrate the need for more clarification would be to ask you what "in shape" means to a competitive swimmer that needs to swim multiple laps in an Olympic sized pool. Now, what about a competitive football player that needs to play on the defensive line on a college team? They'll both want to be "in the best shape" possible, but they mean something very different when they use those words.
I'm going to make some generalizations of how people fit into different categories here, but please understand that there's a lot of overlap that happens with some of the individuals in these categories (and there will be some people that will not quite fit into any of these categories as well). In general, people would come to myself or another trainer looking for one of three things:
More often than not, men (who made up less of the overall client pool) would explain that they wanted to perform better on their flag football team, be able to hit the golf ball farther (or without having back pain for the next two days), or "not to let my teenage son kick my butt" (I assume they were still referring to sports... let's hope anyway). If they had a specific goal that was based on aesthetics, it was generally to lose their "beer gut", and "have bigger muscles". This was always pretty straight forward, and would lead to discussions about making proper meal choices, and what sort of exercise routines would result in these specific outcomes, in the safest, most expedient, and most efficient way. It was always nice to hear from men that actually wanted the information from a professional, because it seems that most men assume that they inherently know what to do on their own, and don't need help from someone else (yet another generalization - but one that I would wager will not raise the ire of anyone who happens to read this).
On the other hand (and this is where I need to make it clear that I'm not saying this as an attack on any group of people, just pointing out the patterns that I observed for multiple years as a trainer), women were far more likely to keep their specific reasons and intentions for the gym pretty vague. I have to assume that some of this was simply that they didn't feel comfortable explaining these things to someone they've just met, and that it also might have to do with the fact that I'm male so they'd feel that perhaps I couldn't appreciate or relate to their situation or circumstances. I think we can say with a high degree of certainty that there is also a different level of societal pressure to be conventionally attractive placed on women than there is on men (again, I'm not saying that I feel like it SHOULD be this way, just acknowledging that it seems to exist - though I would greatly prefer not to discuss the concept of where that comes from at this time).
Women would (and still do) typically explain that they want to be "a little more in shape", or "just tone up a little". It's my job to get people as close to their goals as possible, if not to surpass those goals, and the easiest way to do this is to start at the end and to connect the dots between the desired outcome and where we currently stand. If you don't define the outcome you want, you're really just rolling the dice with what you're doing, and hoping that once in a while things land in a way that's in your favor. "I want to become a dental hygienist", is a great goal. How do you get there? Well, I'm not completely sure, but I'm fairly certain it requires going to school. Most likely taking some course at the school. Probably best to focus on those courses involving dentistry. Hey look at that, we might have narrowed down a path! Now, again, I'm sure there's a lot more to it than that explanation, but if we think of it this way, we're at least pointing in the proper direction to get started (and I'm also fairly certain the people at the school can fill in the blanks for you if you need).
Regardless of whether the client was male or female, I'd ask them if they were eating junk food, and the vast majority would say "no", so I'd ask them what they do eat. Almost always, they'd list off things that are prepackaged, artificial ingredient laden, loaded with sugar, high in carbs, and low in protein. They didn't realize that "junk food" is more than the obvious selections like cookies and potato chips. I'd ask if they were already active, and they'd often tell me that they like to go for walks, or spend time in the garden, or another activity that most of us would not consider strenuous compared to what happens in a gym setting. When I asked how long or how far the walks were, they'd never really know, and usually admit that the walks happened once or twice a week, at best. Also, while I don't see anything bad about walking, there are a whole lot of things that will be more efficient to help a person develop muscle or burn fat (the most common genuine goals people were interested in). Further, if you're eating the highly-processed-yet-devoid-of-nutrients food already mentioned, and then using an occasional walk to burn it off... there's some serious misconceptions in thinking that a leisurely half hour walk around the neighborhood will burn off the sandwich made of nutritionally devoid white bread, peanut butter that may or may not actually contain peanuts but definitely contains lots of other things for some reason, and even more sugar-filled jelly (or, heaven forbid, the entire large pizza) that was consumed for lunch.
Hopefully by now the concept of specificity is really starting to become clear. If you don't define what you want in a pretty exacting manner, you're unlikely to actually achieve that goal, because you can't define a course of action to get there. You can apply more specificity to a process, or to any specific step of a process as needed until you've got a sufficient approach to make it happen. That's REALLY helpful to know when you hit a stumbling block in along the way to your goal. Our dental hygienist example could benefit from this: Going to school is a good plan. Going to a school with a good dental program is a better plan. Uh oh, can't afford the good dental school right away? Ok, see if they offer financing or financial aid of some kind, or perhaps you can take non-dental-specific courses at a less expensive college and then transfer to the good dental school. You could also see if you can space out the courses allowing you to work and earn income along the way (slowing down the process, but eliminating the "it's never going to happen" factor). Ok, so take the prerequisite courses you need at a local community college, then transfer to the school with the good dental program, where you'll take fewer courses at once so you can work and pay for the courses over the course of an extra year or two, and boom you've got a specific plan to a goal.
If any of you reading this are thinking of becoming a dental hygienist, I'm not sure why that specific example idea came into mind, but good luck with creating your plan! And for everyone else, remember, you DO NOT want to be in shape. You want to be able to run further, or perhaps faster. You want to lift heavier weights, or perform more reps with good form. You want to improve your coordination for basketball. You want to increase muscle mass. You want to burn excess body fat and feel happier with your appearance. You want to improve the capacity of your lungs and heart. Don't fall into the trap of a generic goal, and please, please, please, don't aim to be "in shape".