A good health coach will help you to change your habits and behaviors that result in a considerable transformation of your health and wellbeing. Science shows that sustainable behavior change is one of the most difficult things to do, and is often unsuccessful if we try it on our own. A good health coach will give you the support you need, and encourage you to build a support network around you. They will use their expertise in behavior change to help you achieve your health and wellness goals by setting attainable goals, keeping you accountable, and guiding you through the right action steps, one at a time.
Maybe you have experienced this before: There is something that bugs you. It used to be something minor that you knew you should probably address soon. You always knew that some of these habits were not “healthy”. It may be the afternoon sugar rush, lack of physical activity, the late night snacking and binge watching parade, the pack of cigarettes, or maybe the dozen donuts per week. One day you decide that you want to make a change: No more sugar, have more salads, and go to the gym 5 times a week. Monday comes and goes great. Tuesday comes and your co-worker has donuts, and you work late so no time for the gym – and then the old habits slowly and sneakily return.
Why is it so hard to change a habit?
Many of us are in this cycle. We have old habits that we have developed over years, and every attempt to change them results in an overwhelming drainage of willpower. How to lower blood pressure? How to be more active? How to lose weight? How to eat more vegetables? How to lower cholesterol? How many calories should I eat in a day? Don’t be discouraged – there is a reason why behavior change is a science! Researchers spend their lifetime studying how humans make decisions and change behaviors and habits – that is how complicated it is (Duckworth & Gross, 2020). Luckily, we can take advantage of what they have already learned. For example, there are 94 behavior change strategies (Michie et al., 2013) that we can use to make it more likely that we will actually develop and maintain new, healthy habits.
Some of the most important lessons that we have learned from behavior change science are 1) don’t rely on willpower, 2) make small changes over time, and 3) have a network of support. Willpower is a depletable resource (Muraven & Baumeister, 2000), and when we want to make changes, we need to prepare other strategies that can help us when our willpower is low. Real, sustainable changes do not happen in a day or a week, rather we need more than 2 months to create or change a daily habit and more than 8 months to make it stick (Lally et al., 2009). Social support is a number one indicator of successful health behavior change (Ajzen, 1991; Bandura, 1998). Having friends and family on the same journey, and a professional health behavior change specialist can make all the difference if you want to make a real, transformative change.
What is a health coach?
Health coach is an umbrella term for anyone who specializes in helping their clients making healthy lifestyle changes. A good health coach will help you to set attainable goals, achieve them, and build sustainable lifestyle changes. Health coaches are not: Nutritionists, Personal Trainers or Physicians. Health coaches cannot help you heal a disease, but they can help you to adhere to healthy habits that are recommended by the researchers and physicians. For example, there is a general consensus that vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and water should be abundant in a healthy diet, while processed foods and sugars should be avoided or minimized (Dietary Guidelines for Americans 2020-2025). Similarly, achieving and maintaining a health physical activity level can improve quality of life, mental health, sleep and risk of chronic diseases such as cancer, diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity (2018 Physical Activity Guidelines Advisory Committee Report). Reliable and well-trained health coaches will find the scientific evidence surrounding your personal needs and habits, such as healthy nutrition, getting enough exercise, and reducing screen time and stress, and help you to make changes in your behavior that improve your health. However, beware of uninformed “health coaches”! Be informed fas a client to find a responsible, well-educated health coach.
Beware of the term “health coach” – What a health coach should NOT do!
Unfortunately, the profession “health coach” is not regulated, which means that everyone and anyone can call themselves a health coach and take you on as a client, even if they may not have the necessary education and understanding of their scope of practice. Health coaches should not give you specific meal plans, physical therapy, chiropractic adjustments, claim to heal a disease such as diabetes, Cron’s disease, cancer or obesity, or give any other prescriptions. These types of services should be provided by 1) nutritionists, who need to get their bachelor’s degree, spend at least 10-12 months in practical experience, and have get certified as a registered national board registration examination; 2) chiropractors and physical therapists who also need a college degree and attend a chiropractic school until they can be certified, and 3) physicians, who, as you may know, have to go through 7-12 years of medical school. Health coaches are also not mental health therapists. If you need to see someone about a mental health issue, you should also find someone who is licensed in your state.
What can a health coach do for me?
While you need either one of these specialists for prescriptions to heal a specific mental or physical condition, you can take that prescription to your health coach and ask them to help you to adhere to it. You can also ask your health coach about the national recommendations for physical activity and nutrition and create nutrition and exercise goals with the help of your health coach. Your health coach can help you with anything, as long as they do not make a prescription to heal a health condition.
With all these caveats out of the way, good health coaches can be highly efficient in helping you to achieve lifestyle changes that can lead to dramatic improvements in your health. For example, you may have been diagnosed with pre-diabetes, and your doctor told you to remove sugar from your diet and manage your blood sugar. Your health coach can help you to find alternatives that have no or little sugar and slowly change your habits with you over time. After a period of time, often this is about 3 months, you may have normal blood sugar and likely lost some weight. Similarly, your doctor may tell you to be more active so that you can lower your blood pressure. Your health coach can help you to set attainable goals, talk through mental and physical barriers, and slowly increase your activity levels. After 3 months, you may notice better fitness, lower blood pressure and higher energy levels.
How to find a good health coach?
Firstly, identify their credentials, education and experience. Some health coaches are also certified personal trainers or registered dieticians. Remember, if they do not have any of these certifications or licenses, they cannot provide you with prescriptions or claim to heal a certain condition. The website of the health coach should be highly transparent and include a resume from end of high school to the present.
If you want to be completely sure that you are with a knowledgeable and responsible health coach, you can look for the term “Certified Health Education Specialist”, or short CHES®. A CHES has at least a Bachelor’s degree, and is board certified, and actively needs to keep their certification updated.
Health Education was originally established as a field to assist the public health scientists to translate their research into programs for the community. Certified Health Education Specialists know how to 1) find, read and comprehend scientific literature, 2) develop education sessions and behavior change programs for a specific group of people who have a specific need, 3) evaluate the program using scientific strategies, and 4) advocate to legislators for a group of people with a specific need (National Commission for Health Education Credentialing).
The important skill that a CHES has compared to other health coaches is that they are trained to read and understand scientific literature and process information critically. This means that they know where to find reliable information to help you achieve your health goals, and translate this information to make it useful and practical for you. For example, if you want to lose weight and be more physically active, your Health Educator will not go to the first google page advocating for the Keto diet and push-pull-legs weight training plan. Instead, your Health Educator will go to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) website, look at Cochrane reviews (scientific reviews), read the Physical Activity Guidelines for Americans (PAG) Report, and refer to the Dietary Guidelines for Americans. They may support their search with scientific journal articles from google scholar, or books written by expert researchers on the topic that you need their help with. They will then teach you this information and prepare a behavior change program for you based on their research, that is tailored to you individually: Your fitness level, your schedule and other responsibilities, and your preferences for foods and activities!