October 22, 2018
Apple with dumbbells, measuring tape, and jump rope

Wellness Coaches: An Extra Edge Toward Healthy Habits

by Jeanine Barone  

If you’re interested in changing your attitude about food, fitness, or other health-related matters but are having difficulty taking steps on your own, a wellness coach may be just what the doctor ordered. Like any coach, a wellness coach—sometimes called a health coach—guides you, in this case in making better lifestyle choices, whether that means exercising more, losing weight, reducing stress, or quitting smoking, for example.

Working in private practice or employed in health clubs, fitness centers, corporate wellness programs, medical offices, or hospitals, wellness coaches work with individuals to determine how various aspects of their lives affect their stress level, body weight, diet, or exercise habits.

But they’re not (or at least shouldn’t be) in the business of telling you what your goals should be, and they should not prescribe specific diets or exercise routines or encourage you to ignore or act contrary to directives from your medical doctor. Rather, based on what you tell them, they help you figure out ways to achieve your objectives and deal with setbacks.

There’s some evidence that wellness coaching can encourage people to make healthy lifestyle choices. For instance, in a survey of people participating in telephone-based wellness coaching as part of a Kaiser Permanente health plan, most reported high levels of satisfaction and success with meeting their health-related goals, which included healthy eating and exercise.

And in a study in Mayo Clinic Proceedings in 2014, people who completed 12 weeks of wellness coaching reported improvements in mood, perceived stress, and quality of life. The study lacked a control group, however.

How to find a wellness coach

Until recently, if you were looking for a wellness coach, there was no national standard to determine if that person was even minimally competent. That changed in 2017, when the nonprofit International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching (ICHWC) began offering national board certification in conjunction with the National Board of Medical Examiners, the organization best known for physician licensing exams.

Among the requirements, candidates must have an academic degree or equivalent work experience, have graduated from an approved program (such as those offered at the Mayo Clinic, University of Minnesota, or Vanderbilt University Medical Center), and have passed an exam. To maintain certification they must complete a certain number of hours of continuing coaching education and document a minimum number of coaching hours every five years.

Because this is a new program, however, most wellness coaches are not certified—and anyone will still be able to call him- or herself a wellness or health coach without certification.

A physician, psychologist, or other health care provider can refer you to a wellness coach. You can also call your local medical center. Keep in mind that even certified wellness coaches are not specifically educated in all aspects of nutrition, fitness, or mental health—and they should not advise about dietary supplements. For dietary advice, see a registered dietitian nutritionist (RDN).

Wellness coaching sessions can start at $100 an hour, but may be less expensive if purchased in packages or if done over the phone or online. Beginning sometime this year, ICHWC will have a searchable registry of wellness coaches on its website.

Also see Changing Bad Health Habits.