What does "health coach" actually mean though?

By Dominique Michelle Astorino
March 05, 2020
Luis Alvarez/Getty Images

Nutritionists, athletic trainers, personal trainers, life coaches, run coaches, yoga instructors, and dietitians, oh my! This isn't Oz, just the health world, and it seems like there's an infinitely long list of professional titles here.

One that is oft-overlooked but could be quite useful for many people is a health coach. And while it might seem like a vague title (especially if you're not familiar with it), if you find a health coach with the right credential and education, they just might change your life for the better.

So: What is a health coach, what are their responsibilities, and should you hire one? Here's how to find a legit expert to lead you on your healthy journey.

What Is a Health Coach?

Well, it depends! The definition and role of a health coach varies depending on where and how the credential was earned (more on that soon). You can get a health coach certificate or title from many different organizations—such as the Health Coach Institute, Institute for Integrative Nutrition, or the American Council on Exercise's (ACE) Health Coach program—and end up with a different background, expertise, and purpose of practice.

All in all, "a health coach empowers clients to adopt and sustain healthy lifestyle behaviors that can prevent, mitigate and even reverse chronic diseases," explains Todd Galati, M.A., ACE's senior director of standards and practice advancement. Rather than programming a workout routine or creating a diet plan, they use the science of behavior change to "enhance a client's strengths and autonomy and act as a guide in their quest to achieve self-determined goals," says Galati.

A health coach can help draw out all the good habits and strengths you already have, but you may not have tapped into yet. OK, OK, but what do they actually coach you on? Some general aspects of your health and wellness, including:

  • Implementing better nutrition habits: Making better food choices every day to feel healthier, more energized, and happier.

  • Focusing on improved sleep hygiene: You need sleep, they'll help you catch zzz's.

  • Actually applying stress management: We all say we're going to get to it; your coach will make sure you prioritize it and give you tips on how to make it a reality.

  • Incorporating physical activity into a client's busy life: Need motivation to get to yoga? Look no further.

It might sound a little woo-woo (like, literally, they're your personal cheerleader), but ACE created their health coach program for a serious reason: to fight against chronic disease related to inactivity. By getting up close and personal with clients who may not live the most active, health-centric lifestyle, their mission is to help individuals enact positive, accessible change and "help a growing population of individuals with chronic diseases." After all, consistency is the most important factor in living a healthy lifestyle—and a big part of a health coach's job is to help you stay on it.

What's In a Name?

As noted, the term "health coach" can mean many things. "As a trainer, I personally know incredibly talented and brilliant people who work as health coaches," but it's hard to compare a health coach to a trainer because "there's no standardization of education," she explained. "Anyone can call themselves a health coach since there is no state or federal regulation," said trainer and athletic coach Liz Letchford, M.S., A.T.C., Ph.D.-C.

Personal trainers and nutritionists can fall into this category as well. Like a health coach, their skills and knowledge also depend on where their credential came from. "The education required of a personal trainer is tested by the passing of a certification exam; however anyone can call themselves a personal trainer since there is no regulation of the title itself," said Letchford.

That means, yes, the title of "health coach" is pretty ambiguous. "A health coach can do wonders for someone who is healthy and looking for more accountability or guidance," says Lisa Mastela, M.P.H., R.D., founder of Bumpin Blends. "The trouble comes when [clients] look to [coaches] without a true education for their specific health guidance. When it comes to a health coach or a nutritionist, anyone can use those titles and call themselves that," she explained. "This means a blogger, or a keto CrossFit enthusiast could suddenly label themselves as a health coach or a nutritionist, and unsuspecting clients wouldn't be the wiser." (Related: Read This Before You Hire a Health or Fitness Coach from Instagram)

Health Coach Certifications & Education

So how do you find someone legit? It helps to know a little bit about some of the common health coach education and training programs.

ACE Health Coach Certification

The ACE Health Coach Certification program is the only health coaching-specific certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), third-party accreditation of professional certifications in healthcare and other industries, says Galati. "By earning NCCA Accreditation, that means the program meets the same standards for reliability, validity, and evaluation of those qualified to practice in a given profession as the certifications for nurse practitioners, occupational therapists, registered dietitians, and physician assistants."

To become an ACE health coach, first, you need to meet certain pre-requisites. Specifically, you much have one of the following: 1) An associate degree or higher from an accredited college or university in fitness, exercise science, nutrition, healthcare, wellness or a related field 2) two years documented work experience in coaching and facilitating behavior or lifestyle change or similar 3) a completed health coach training and education program approved by the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaches or 4) have a current professional certification accredited by the NCCA or license in fitness, nutrition, healthcare, wellness, human resources, or a related field. Essentially, you need a baseline education just to get into this program, which therefore elevates the clout of this certificate even more.

To become certified via ACE, a health coach will learn from a series of video lectures, audio and video coaching sessions, The Professional's Guide to Health and Wellness Coaching textbook materials (an industry-leading textbook on health coaching), and then prepares to take a substantial exam that covers coaching behavior change, client assessments, developing and implementing plans, and more.

Health Coach Institute

The Health Coach Institute teaches functional nutrition, habit change coaching, life coaching, and has been accredited by the International Coach Federation (a coaching-specific third-party accreditation). To become certified, a health coach needs to watch all the video lessons, complete skills labs (done with fellow students), take test clients through a 90-Day Total Transformational Program, and pass short assessments at the end of each section. Their only re-req is that candidates have a high school diploma, and you don't need to take an exam to become certified.

Institute for Integrative Nutrition

The Institute for Integrative Nutrition's program teaches integrative nutrition, coaching skills, and how relationships and spirituality play into health. IIN requires high school diplomas in order to enroll in their health coaching program and coaches complete four exams throughout the course to become certified. The program is licensed through the New York State Education Department and the Ohio State Education Department as a certificate program in Health Coaching and is recognized by the International Consortium of Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches and International Institute of Complementary Therapists.

Health Coach vs. Trainer vs. Dietitian

Consider the health coach your generalist for healthy living: A health coach provides overall coaching in multiple areas, whereas a trainer drills down into the specifics of physical fitness and a dietitian gets into the nitty-gritty of personal nutrition and diet.

It's very possible for a health coach to also hold certifications in personal training or nutrition, but otherwise, "health coaches should be mindful of their scope of practice and always refer clients to a certified exercise professional for physical activity programs or registered dietitians for specific dietary advice," said Galati.

Dietitian

"An R.D. [registered dietitian] is the absolute highest level of nutrition education you can have," explains Mastela. "R.D.s are trained to work with patients with any health condition, including in hospitals, outpatient facilities, rehab facilities, and beyond," she says. This is because of their unique educational background. "They have over three years of advanced nutrition education (with more prerequisite courses than med school), most have master's degrees, and they've all completed an internship year in hospitals," says Mastela.

On top of that, they're required to obtain a significant amount of approved continuing education units every five years—meaning, they're always educated and on top of the newest research and approaches, she says. This is seriously important given how often research develops and health advice changes. Remember the '90s when everyone said all fat was terrible for you? So if nutrition is what you need to work on most, an R.D. is who you'll want to turn to. If you need help staying consistent with their recommendations, though, a health coach can help keep you accountable. (Related: The 7 Biggest Nutrition Mistakes You're Probably Making, According to a Dietitian)

Personal Trainer

Your expert in all things fitness—provided they have a legitimate credential. "Most gyms require trainers to pass a certification exam with an organization such as ACE, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA), etc.—or the gym's specific program," said Letchford. "Many personal trainers started their career with a degree in kinesiology and often have a college degree to support their skill set." A trainer can come up with a workout plan for you, but a health coach can help you stick to it. (See: How to Find the Best Personal Trainer for You)

Should You Hire a Health Coach?

Do you think you need to get your sh*t together when it comes to health, but aren't quite sure where to start? This is your time. There's so much more to living a healthy life than diet and exercise, and essentially, that's why a health coach exists. They're like your credentialed best friend with a wealth of healthy-living expertise, ready to point you in the right direction and help you tap into your potential. Not everyone needs a personal trainer and a dietitian; you might just need some better accountability, a fresh mindset, and personalized health tips.

"If you're looking to make a positive change in your overall mental, physical, and spiritual health, it's important to find a health coach with whom you have a positive connection," says Letchford. "To ensure you're receiving the highest quality care, seek out health coaches who are hungry to always stay up-to-date with the latest research findings and continuing education. Health coaches have a responsibility to take your entire lifestyle, medical history, and personality into consideration when helping you reach your health goals."

If you're wondering about cost, a session with a health coach might run you anywhere from $30-$200 per hour depending on their background and education, according to Thumbtack, a service that connects people with local professionals in any industry. Theoretically, if your health coach is also an R.D. and a certified personal trainer, that could be a good deal; but if you're about to hire multiple professionals to help you keep track of your health, consider what you need most before shelling out tons of $$$.

What About an Online or Holistic Health Coach?

You can work with a coach virtually, or choose a coach that has a "holistic" approach. Again, with these, there's no standardization for the title, so they can come from many programs and institutions.

When it comes to the Holistic Health Coach certificate, however, one of the most recognized programs is the one at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), which is an online program that helps coaches learn how to give healthy living tools for diet and mental health management (stress relief, time management, sleep, etc). It's similar to a regular health coach, really. Duke Integrative Medicine also has an integrative health coaching program, as does the American Fitness Professionals Association (AFPA).

And if you're comfortable with meeting your coach on FaceTime, Skype, or simply on the phone, an online health coach might be a great option for you. Just be sure to check where your coach got their credential, and what kind of training and education went into their certification. (See: Should You Work Out with an Online Fitness Coach?)

When Should You Look for Other Options?

Galati emphasized that health coaches do not develop specific exercise programs or prescribe diets (unless they hold certifications in those fields). "If you're looking for specific dietary guidance, a health coach would refer you to an R.D. for that specific support," he says. "Likewise, if you're looking for a structured exercise program, a health coach would refer you to a certified exercise professional (personal trainer) for specific exercise programming and training." This is especially relevant if you're looking for diet or fitness advice regarding a health condition (like diabetes or celiac disease) or an injury.

But if you just need a little nudge to eat more veggies or get to the gym a few more times a week? A health coach could be perfect for you.

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Comments (1)

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March 8, 2020
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