Since the 1990’s health coaching has continued a rise in popularity as a profession, but in the last five years it has really taken off due to demand. Demand has grown as s a result of seeing, over and over across the globe the proof of successes that health coaching brings out in client and patient care. From professional dancers to Olympic athletes, and from regular gym-goers to a newly diagnosed patient with Type 2 Diabetes, people are finding health coaches wherever they are to maximize the successful outcomes of their health and fitness goals.
Health coaching, on average, lasts up to a year for individuals. This isn’t a magic number or fabricated timeline for intervention, but most successful programs take about a year to complete. During this year, clients or patients will work with their health coaches 1-4 times a month for appointments and follow-ups. These appointments, phone calls and/or emails are designed to continue educating the individual through their progress. With each follow-up the health coach will ask for updates on client/patient progress goals such as sleep quality, food quality, stress levels, exercise regimens and general feeling of wellness in order to continue peeling the layers back to root causes. The intention of the health coach is to help their client, first, detox themselves from stress and unhealthy lifestyle habits in order to jumpstart their rise of feeling better and having more energy, thus more motivation to keep going. Secondly, once the coach has his or her client feeling better, their attention is piqued and they are able to absorb more information and are more open to accountability. This can a few months, but after that it’s a very straight-lined effort to educate and empower as the individual continues to get better and better.
The benefits of health coaching, in the short term, are well known and easy to list off one by one. For starters, we’ve learned that having a health coach provides individuals with the support, guidance and accountability they need to remain committed to their goals. Health coaches work to educate their clients on health matters that pertain to their needs and empower them to do the work. So we know that health coaching is a successful practice to get each person on their feet facing the right direction when it comes to a new diagnosis, a new health goal or even a fitness goal.
But how do folks that have received health coaching fare years later?
In a study recently published, researchers were aiming to uncover the long-term effects of health coaching. They took a randomized control trial (RCT) comparing the outcomes of patients with health coaching to usual care patients who had high risk factors such as hypertension, diabetes, or hyperlipidemia. They performed a follow up 24 months out from the onset of coaching, which ended up being one year from the completion of intervention. This study revealed that the most improved outcomes in clinical patient successes came from those who completed health coaching intervention, both during the first year with a health coach and the subsequent year without the coaching. In other words, these patients showed the most improvement not only from the onset of diagnosis and completion of health coaching, but continued to show improvements in the following year without intervention.
The authors of this study formally concluded that the majority of improved clinical outcomes prevailed in the absence of a health coach one year after completing an intervention program with a coach. And according to these authors, successful outcomes in the long term could be associated with the hands-on approach that their assigned health coaches took in the year following diagnosis. This included escorting patients to their clinical appointments and visits, helping to review primary questions from the patients as well as going over medications prior to their appointments with their physician, staying with patients during the exams, reviewing their care plans after appointments and talking to patients by phone in between visits to remain plugged in.
The common aspect I see here is that the health coaches plotted their intervention in a very delicate, sensitive but hands-on way. The theme is guidance and support here. Coaching can often be understood as the stigma of an aesthetically intimidating person wearing tight clothes and blowing a whistle in your face. This is not what we see here. We are seeing caring individuals who are there to comfort and usher their client through some difficult behavioral and lifestyle changes that affect the outcomes of their personal health. This can be scary! So the clipboard and whistle are a fine caricature of “the coach”, but in terms of health coaching as discussed, there are no drill sergeants in the room. The outcomes were not derived from boot camp-like drilling, such as seen in shows like The Biggest Loser. No. I’m seeing gentle affirmations, support, encouragement, education, empowerment and a hand to hold, not a hand to do it for you. I think that has a lot to do with the long-term effects we are shown in this recent study.
The difference between the two control groups (those who received health coaching for one year after diagnosis and those who did not) at the 24 month mark is that the group that received health coaching were:
- Self-empowered – They are locked and loaded with all of the information they’ve learned from their health coaches to continue making the best decisions for themselves.
- Self-sufficient – They can offer themselves support and a pat on the back through trials and successes.
- Self-motivated – Every new amount of progress becomes the trigger to keep going.
- Self-aware – They are dialed in to their own bodies and are able to mindfully address changes and/or symptoms as they occur.
There are a lot of “self” words, and I think it’s important to focus on that. You cannot become any of these things without learning. Education is the benchmark of all health coaching programs. It is the desire of health coaches to promote an environment where clients become equipped to do this on their own, and they can’t do that without education. So this is not a field where you hire a drill sergeant and the second he or she cuts you loose you are left in a state of bewilderment. This is a field in which the professional you hire to be your health coach is going to educate you as if you were their very own professional intern who would get a grade on their experience. If you haven’t learned anything, are unable to go to the grocery store on your own, choose conscious meals that suit your own specific needs, or be able to identify the onset of specific symptoms as direct physical messages and decipher them, then you have missed the opportunity to gain lifelong insight from a health coach. And this is, in part, why I believe that first group in the study who received coaching was successful after their programs ended, and after a year in absence of their health coach. Because they were empowered with the knowledge and confidence to do this on their own!
Armed with the knowledge and already having a jumpstart on changing old habits, eating healthy, exercising right, managing stress and overall feeling better, clients and patients undoubtedly continue to do better than those who do not receive intervention from health coaches. They are outfitted with the tools they need to continue improving their clinical outcomes, reducing high risk markers, and eliminating those health-related red flags!
For physicians, the substance and payoff here is that investing in health coaching not only offers positive results for their patients who struggle with health goals, and also clinically, in the immediate term but it also shows that these results will persist over time. This engages the patients more closely with their physicians by helping to manage their chronic illnesses outside of the walls of the doctor’s office.
Physicians are not the only ones who would benefit from outsourcing health coaches or bringing them on staff. Gym owners, private studios, hospitals, schools, athletic training facilities, collegiate sport departments, and corporate settings would gain huge returns on the asset of in-house health coaches (or out-sourced) not only financially, but in meeting their goals for members, clients, patients, students or employees. Health is the foundation to how you perform in any setting, and by improving a team’s health or a member’s health, you are enhancing their performance which only reflects well on your organization.
If you are someone who has considered hiring a health coach, take the information from this study as a sign that this is the time to invest in your health! Not just for the near future but for the long term.
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