August 10, 2021

Health Coaches: What They Do — and How They Can Help You

Find out if a health coach is the key to taking your health to the next level

A person does pushups while watching their laptop screen.

A health coach sounds like something for the rich and famous. But you don’t have to have your own reality show or an entourage to reap the benefits of health coaching. An increasing number of Americans are turning to these wellness champions to help them ditch bad habits and adopt new, healthier ones.

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Could you benefit from a health coach? We asked registered dietitian and health coach Erin Coates for more information on what a health coach does and when you might want one.

What is a health coach?

A health coach is your personal health cheerleader, guide and partner. They help you implement lifestyle changes to improve your physical health.

The service is often available through corporate wellness programs. Your doctor may also recommend health coaching if you have a chronic health issue like diabetes. Or, you may hire a health coach to help you achieve a wellness goal like getting fit.

Health coaches typically address six key areas that affect wellness, with topics branching off into other categories. The six key areas are:

If one of those areas is out of balance, it’s likely the others are as well. Someone who isn’t very physically active may also be highly stressed, not sleeping soundly at night or not eating well. Combined, it can feel overwhelming.

Health coaches help people sort out where to start and make small changes that grow over time, says Coates.

“A health coach helps you create goals by looking at what stage of change you’re in and what action you’re ready to take,” says Coates. “It’s about self-discovery. A health coach just leads you in putting the pieces together for yourself. You figure out how to make the changes that work for your life.”

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What does a health coach do?

A health coach gets you “unstuck” by helping you figure out what’s keeping you from reaching your health goals. Your coach regularly checks in with you by email, phone calls or in-person meetings, usually over the course of at least three months. During those conversations, a health coach asks questions to get you thinking about how you can overcome challenges.

“The most common obstacle people face is their own thoughts about themselves and about change,” Coates says. “Through motivational interviewing and cognitive behavioral therapy techniques, health coaches help people work through some of their thoughts. People find out what’s blocking them from following through with the changes they’d like to see.”

For example, say your doctor wants you to eat more fruits and vegetables. A health coach might start by asking questions like:

  • On a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 being the most, how important is it for you to make this change?
  • What feels reasonable for you?
  • What is blocking you or what challenges might you face in following through?
  • What’s your home life like?
  • What plan can we put together so that you can follow through with getting more fruits and vegetables?

Health coaching isn’t about someone telling you what to do, emphasizes Coates. “It’s someone who’s respecting your terms and your reasons for wanting — or not wanting — to change. A health coach shows up for you in whatever way you need.”

Benefits of health coaching

Change is often difficult, even when it’s something we really want. Sometimes it even feels downright impossible. The benefit of health coaching is having someone in your corner to help you through it, and research shows it works.

One study found that people who went through three months of health coaching significantly improved:

  • Blood pressure.
  • Cholesterol.
  • Glucose (blood sugar).
  • Triglycerides (blood fat).
  • Body weight.
  • Cardiovascular fitness.

A health coach can help when you feel like nothing you’ve done on your own has worked. Or give you a boost if you’re feeling overwhelmed, discouraged or like you don’t have enough time.

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“Often, a person might leave a doctor’s appointment and feel discouraged. Like, ‘Gosh, I have to lose all this weight,’ or ‘Now I have all these things I have to do,’” says Coates. “A health coach can help people see they have strengths they can use to start making changes. We help them see the possibilities based on their unique situation and abilities so that it’s simpler and easier to make sustainable changes.”

A health coach also provides:

  • Accountability: Knowing that you have to check in with another person about your progress can give you the push you need to move forward.
  • Encouragement: Health coaches act as cheerleaders to pick you up when you’re having a not-so-good day.
  • Unconditional support: A health coach doesn’t judge your actions. They help you come to your own conclusions about what works and what doesn’t in reaching your goals.

What should you look for in a health coach?

If you’d like to try health coaching, ask your healthcare provider for a recommendation. You can also contact your health insurance to see if they cover the service and have a list of approved providers.

Choose someone who is a national board-certified health and wellness coach (NBC-HWC), says Coates. It indicates they’ve had proper training.

Setting and reaching health goals can be challenging. But health coaches can help you move past barriers. Switching to a healthier lifestyle can affect everything. With increased energy and motivation, you’ll be able to do more, be there for others and live life to the fullest.

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