There are times we could all use a personal guru, especially when it comes to our health. Making lifestyle changes like eating right, committing to a fitness routine, and successfully managing stress is easier when you have someone to keep you accountable and help identify potential pitfalls so you can head them off. For many people these days that guru is a health coach.
“A health coach works with someone who wants to make a change in their well-being and helps them reach their goals,” says Linda Smith, director of educational programs at Duke Integrative Medicine. That sounds broad and vague, but research (like this April study published in The American Journal of Managed Care , and this May study published in Clinical Pediatrics ) has found that health coaches can help patients with a variety of issues, including sticking to their new nutrition, exercise, and weight-loss plans, and also managing chronic conditions.
With doctors spending less time with patients (about 9 to 16 minutes per appointment, says a 2015 survey) and Google becoming a go-to source for medical information , it’s not surprising that health coaches are on the rise. It’s ranked number 13 in a list of 20 in the annual “Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends” (more than 2,800 health and fitness professionals around the globe weighed in) published in ACSM’S Health & Fitness Journal last December.
Just because something works for a lot of people doesn’t mean it’s right for you. Smith says some people may benefit from health coaches more than others. “They can help people who have tried and failed and tried and failed, those who don’t know where to get started, or anyone who’s so busy, they don’t know how to fit their goal in,” she explains. If you’re thinking, “That’s me!” it’s important to know what health coaches can’t do for you, too. They cannot prescribe medication or put you on a diet. They primarily help with lifestyle changes. That means for any medical conditions (diabetes, cancer, etc.), you still need to see a doctor. If your primary care says that it would help to get something like stress or your weight under control, then you may want to see a health coach to aid your work on those things.
“Seventy percent or more of chronic disease is based in our lifestyle, and nutrition, fitness, and stress management are probably the top three factors,” Smith says. “We know we are not going to cure heart disease, diabetes, obesity, and other diseases with education alone. Health coaches are the piece of this puzzle that’s about engagement and planning for success so that people can make a change.”
Another difference between doctors and health coaches is how much time they spend with you. “With a doctor, it’s 15 minutes in and out, and you address one specific problem,” says Jennifer Cassetta , a certified health coach from the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN). “A health coach will dig more into your life. They may say, ‘I’ve noticed you spend 80 hours a week working, sleep five hours a night, have your phone by the bed, feed yourself for comfort, and aren’t happy because you’re not in a relationship.’ Then they try to connect the dots and identify the underlying causes and problems.”
In addition to diving deep into your lifestyle, during your initial consultation (which generally lasts about an hour), a health coach will ask questions to see if now is the right time for you to work on your goals. A few sample questions: “What barriers are in the way? How confident are you in making a change right now? What’s important to you in health and well being?” Most will give you the option of meeting in person or via phone or Skype, which have been shown to be just as effective . You’ll typically meet every two weeks for anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour. “Two weeks is long enough for someone to put in place what we agreed to and gain experience and learn. Then we can build on that,” Smith says.
Most health coaches will ask you to commit to working together for three to six months total. “That’s enough time for a client to make some changes and work toward a goal that’s significant to them. Then we can see: Is this something they want to continue? Or did they just need help getting started?” Smith says. Based on that answer, some people work with a coach for years, making one change after the next. “It’s a support system that’s strengthening for them,” Smith says. Others say “thank you” and move on now that their new healthy habit is an established part of their life.
If you decide to seek out a health coach, you want to be sure to pick the best one for your needs—as you would with any health professional. First, know that there’s currently no national certifying program for health coaches. Although the National Consortium for Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches and the National Board of Medical Examiners recently signed an agreement to launch a national certification , this may not be in effect until the fall of 2017. What that means is that anyone can call themself a health coach right now, unfortunately, which is probably why some people may be dubious of the job and its effectiveness.
Before you meet a health coach for a consultation, consider asking them the following questions to gauge their skill-level and overall experience in this relatively new field:
*Where did you get your training? (A list of reputable organizations can be found here.)
*How long was that training?
*For how long have you been coaching?
*Do you have any references I could speak to?
*Describe your coaching philosophy.
Also, review their website and see if they have any other credentials, such as certifications in personal training or nutrition (i.e., registered dietitian). And be mindful if a health coach seems to be pressuring you to go on a specific diet or make any other lifestyle changes that don’t seem right for you.
“Some people call themselves health coaches, but maybe they have a certain dietary preference that they think is most healing—yet they don’t have any education to dispense that information,” Smith says. “A coach should always understand what’s going on for their client and make the best recommendations on their behalf.” That means you should feel respected and heard. “Ask yourself, ‘Am I being listened to? Am I setting goals that are important to me?’” Smith says. “I want my clients to say ‘I did it’ so they are learning how to be their own best coach as they are being coached. I don’t want them look back and think, ‘I’m lost without you.’”
Since there is no national health coach certification, most health insurance companies do not cover the costs of working with a health coach. The IIN initiated a Change.org petition to include health coaching as an allowable pre-tax expense in the Health Savings Acts, but for now, talk to your insurance provider. Some will offer health coaches, but check them out to be sure they are qualified. If you decide to pay out of pocket, prices vary widely, from about $50 to $200 per session, says Cassetta, who adds that you should expect to pay more for a more-experienced coach.