What Is Health Coaching?

by: Jennifer Wannen
Published: May 17, 2016
Updated: June 23, 2022

Success achieved after good workout

When people are looking to make major health change—from losing weight to addressing chronic conditions, transforming their fitness to recharging their vitality—it’s easy to become overwhelmed. Questions abound. Where should they start? Where can they fit in these changes? How much do they really need to change? How do they deal with stumbling blocks? What if it’s not working? What if they fail?

With so many uncertainties and variables, with so much at stake, the most important question for them might be this: why would they want to go it alone?

We hear the basics all the time—clean up your diet, get in shape, get enough sleep—and yet too many people still struggle to make it all happen. Today over 70% of American adults are overweight. More than one-third are clinically obese. One in eleven people has been diagnosed with diabetes, while more than one in three adults is pre-diabetic. Meanwhile, heart disease and many other lifestyle diseases are on the rise. It’s estimated that 70% of health care costs go to conditions that are entirely preventable. If that’s where the money is going, it’s clearly also where individuals’ grief and frustration are as well. It’s time for a transformation.

What if losing weight and reclaiming health could be different? What if moving into greater well-being could be a simpler, more straightforward, more supported experience? What if people’s efforts could be less hit or miss and more constructively guided? What if the process could feel less like self-denial and more like self-investment? This is where a health coach can make all the difference for a person’s experience and success.

What benefits can health coaches offer their clients?

A health coach is a trained professional who can act as a key support figure in a client’s health journey, no matter what his/her particular goal. Armed with holistic knowledge of how fitness, nutrition and lifestyle all influence well-being, a coach can offer critical knowledge and personal assistance as clients make the changes that will set their health on a new course.

A health coach is first and foremost there to help guide the overarching process—from clarifying a vision a client is ready to reach for to defining strategies for maintaining success once he/she has attained his/her goals.

In doing so, health coaching offers more than a resource. It offers a relationship. As a health coach, you will assess your client’s current health with the use of key screenings and activities. You’ll also discuss his/her health history and examine the client’s personal stories around health, weight, eating, fitness and stress. “Why the psychological conversations?” you might ask. The self-talk we engage in and the emotional beliefs we have about ourselves or our bodies can powerfully impact our health. They are commonly a sabotaging factor in our pursuit of weight loss or well-being. However, with honest appraisal and strategic reframing, we as health coaches can shift those old stories into messages that have power to transform the way our clients live.

Armed with this full picture, a health coach will work with his/her client to design an inclusive plan to move that client’s daily practices toward healthy choices. This plan won’t be an intimidating one-time list of challenges. Instead, you’ll help the client start by putting words to his/her health ambitions as well as his/her obstacles. You, as a health coach, will then establish an initial lineup of new choices for the client to incorporate into his/her lifestyle and helpful strategies for overcoming anticipated hindrances. Changes will be deliberately low threshold enough to be doable but impactful enough to offer the client a tangible experience of progress.

You can continually add to your client’s new options as he/she grows in confidence. Action item by action item, you’ll help your client reshape his/her health all with the support and expert guidance you bring to bear. Because you’ll be working in relationship with your client as opposed to assigning a generic program, your client will benefit from receiving the specific adjustments and encouragement he/she requires at any given time. The plan will be flexible and always responsive to your client’s needs.

What distinguishes a health coach from other support professionals?

Physicians, personal trainers, therapists, life coaches…how do health coaches fit into this picture? What unique role can they play in a client’s path to well-being? Let’s break it down….

Let’s look at those professionals who can support physical health first. A primary physician monitors a person’s general health with an emphasis on screening and treating for disease. If there’s an acute health concern or chronic condition, his/her primary doctor, with the help of appropriate specialists, will monitor this person’s health issue over time and will prescribe medications, surgery, physical therapy and other interventions to offer the best treatment for a given condition.

Health coaching complements regular medical care by offering ongoing, personal support over time. The fact is, the average patient-physician interaction lasts only seven minutes. It’s enough time to quickly note symptoms, assign a diagnosis, and prescribe a drug or other medical intervention. However, it doesn’t leave time for ongoing, detailed conversations about the contributing role of numerous lifestyle factors related to the condition itself or its effective treatment. These brief medical check-ins also don’t typically provide opportunity for the personal follow-up and meaningful support that encourage deep and lasting behavior changes toward health and healing.

Health coaching sessions, on the other hand, are all about personal support. A health coach can help a client understand more about his/her diagnosis and assist him/her in following through on the doctor’s treatment plan. Most notably, coaching can incorporate powerful lifestyle changes to augment that plan.

What about personal trainers? Surely we’re getting closer to the mission of health coaching with this specialty. To some degree, yes. Personal trainers can assist clients by designing a customized workout based on a client’s current level of fitness and long-term or short-term range of goals. Like personal trainers, health coaches (some of whom are also certified personal trainers) can assess a client’s current fitness condition and work with him/her to create a dynamic, sustainable workout plan that fits that client’s current needs and shifts with ongoing advancement.

The critical difference, however, is that you as a health coach can manage the overarching wellness picture for a client as he/she progresses in fitness—as well as nutrition, sleep, stress and other lifestyle factors. The client gets holistic support from one individual who can offer insight into the interaction of these factors and who can make appropriate adjustments to any part of the plan based on that big picture. Health coaches not only tailor their information and strategies to a client’s overall program, but can support a client by holding and organizing that inclusive vision.

On the psychological side, we often see therapists and life coaches as primary support professionals. Again, there are key distinctions between these roles and that of a health coach. Therapists often help their clients examine significant past events to process the emotional charge of those occurrences. From there, they can assist clients in seeing how their past may continue to influence certain patterns of behavior or expectation, which they can now safely and consciously release in order to move forward in life. Life coaches emphasize future aspirations and work largely with clients who are interested in moving into new chapters in their lives or professions. Some life coaches (often called career or executive coaches) focus solely on vocational development with their clients. Others offer broader support to also include self-actualization around creativity, relationships, transition and/or other issues.

Health coaches also emphasize future aspirations in their work but specialize in supporting the journey to health and wellness. This means offering both concrete strategies and personal encouragement throughout a client’s journey. For many people, losing weight or overcoming barriers in their physical well-being can be an emotional process for many reasons. A health coach will support clients through those feelings and guide their paths with a compassionate approach that will help them release old self-beliefs and assist them in creating new, healthier lives.

Join the premium career field that transforms lives.

Today health coaches are more in demand than ever. They offer services through health clubs, workplace wellness programs and private practices. While all health coaches can provide expert support for losing weight and reclaiming well-being, each coach offers an individual blend of training, credentials and specializations. You as a coach have the opportunity to shape the expertise and breadth of services you offer clients.

Regardless of specializations, leveraging the expert guidance and personal support of a coach can be the most powerful investment your client can make in his/her health. Within that professional relationship, your scientific knowledge and your motivational know-how will move your clients toward their goals one choice at a time and help them reclaim their well-being. This challenging and impactful mission will define your experience as a personal health coach and will ultimately transform the lives of your clients.

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