Health coaching

What is health coaching, and what does a health coach do? A health coach is someone who has broad knowledge about the latest research into human health including nutrition, exercise, stress management, sleep science, and other related fields. They will also have coaching skills because of specific coaching training and experience. These skills include establishing trust with the client, active listening, powerful questioning, direct communication, creating awareness, designing actions, planning and goal setting, and managing progress and accountability. In short, the skills required for one person to help another to change their lifestyle, habits or ways of thinking.

Note that a health coach is not a licensed medical practitioner, e.g. a doctor, physician, personal trainer, registered nutritionist, acupuncturist or psychotherapist (although they sometimes work in partnership with such professionals). A health coach will neither diagnose an illness, interpret medical test results nor prescribe medicine.

A health coaching relationship provides personally-tailored guidance towards living a healthier life. This will take account of a person’s unique characteristics, e.g. age, history, current level of fitness, as well as their goals.

The health coach will usually start by clarifying the client’s health goals, e.g. being more energetic, losing weight, getting stronger, sleeping better, etc. Remember: these are the client’s self-chosen goals. Goals imposed from outside a person, e.g. by a family member or a medical professional, are rarely sustainable. Only goals that come from inside drive lasting change.

If the goals are not clear or they seem to come from external influences, the coach will help the client to come up with one or more realistic self-chosen goals, with a timeframe for their achievement. Sometimes during a coaching relationship (that may last three months, six months, or longer) these goals may evolve, or new ones may be added. Goals provide a ‘why’ that will be crucially important when the going gets tough, or old habits reassert themselves (which they surely will).

Once the initial goals are clear, the coach will work with the client to draw up a plan of action. A health coach has often had their own health issues to work through (and may still be dealing with some) and this experience can be invaluable in helping a client with their journey. The coach’s experience of their own journey will help them to work with the client to design an action plan that is both stretching (or else it is unlikely to produce results) but achievable.

A very important principle is that a health coach will never tell a client what to think or do or feel. They may suggest alternative approaches to achieving a goal, or ways to reframe an issue, but they will always leave the client free to think and act in whatever way they choose.

That aspect of choice is crucial to the coach/client relationship. Coaches may provide information or suggest lifestyle changes that in their experience are likely to help the client achieve their goals, but it is always the client who chooses the course of action that seems most appropriate to them.

Establishing trust is a very important part of the coaching relationship. Unless otherwise agreed for some reason, the content of coaching conversations is confidential.

Coaches never judge clients. No matter what choices a client may have made in their life to date, or however dissatisfied they may be with their health or life circumstances, the focus of the coaching is to look to the future, starting from where they are today, and then acting to realise that future.

Why can’t a person do this for themselves? People can and do become healthier by themselves but there are many reasons why investing in a coach pays dividends. Most people don’t have the time or inclination to research the current knowledge about health and fitness. Whereas a health coach has up-to-date knowledge that can help a client navigate through the confusion, misinformation, vested interests and misunderstandings that characterise much of what passes for health advice in books, magazines or newspapers.

Even if someone has done the research and resolved the contradictory advice that faces us all, they don’t necessarily know how best to action what they have discovered. A health coach will guide them to take effective steps, thereby saving them a lot of time, e.g. many people think that the best way to lose excess weight is through cardiovascular exercise when research shows that this rarely works long term.

A coach will help a client be accountable for sticking to their plan, not in the way of a parent, schoolteacher or boss, but as a neutral supporter of their best interests. Some people say, ‘why do I need a coach when I have a husband/wife/friend who will help me?’ Maybe such people can help, but unlike the coach, the family member or friend is not neutral; even if they have the knowledge (unlikely), they have their own agenda which means that they may be so invested in the client’s change that the client feels pressured to act, rather than acting from their own choice, which can produce unhelpful resistance.

If you have any comments or questions about health coaching, or would like to arrange a free discovery session, please get in touch.