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What is a Health Coach, and Why Do I Need One?

In our 2021 post-pandemic world, health, wellness and self-care must be our number one priority as we attempt to redefine what our "normal" looks like. Lockdown meant double-digit weight gain for many, increased anxiety and exacerbation of mental and physical health disorders, as overworked parents took on even more responsibility, teachers were pushed to learn to teach online (which takes years to master and do well) in two or three weeks, and the many unknowns about the pandemic made going out in public hazardous, or even deadly, for the most vulnerable. A mental health condition called "languishing" - not quite clinically depressed, but far from flourishing - became more widespread. Many people found it nearly impossible to stay fit and eat well under the conditions imposed by lockdowns. There is a great deal of trepidation and fear of re-entry as we attempt to get back to our jobs and social lives. While many people are bouncing back without difficulty, others are struggling to find their balance. If you are struggling and need some extra support to get back to the healthier, fit, calmer you that you were before the pandemic struck, a certified, professional health coach may be just the right person to provide the guidance and accountability you need to help you not only survive, but THRIVE in these uncertain times.

But buyer beware! If you are considering hiring a health coach, you need to ensure that your coach has credentials and expertise in health coaching. There are many people calling themselves coaches with few, if any, coaching credentials, so it's extremely important to find out what type of formal education your potential coach has. Did you know that anyone can call him or herself a coach without having any credentials at all? Similarly, anyone without credentials or education can call him or herself a nutritionist. (If you are looking for dietary prescriptions, especially if you have a chronic health condition, then you need to find a Registered Dietician - they have a bachelor's degree and must pass a national certification exam). If you are looking for an educated expert, make sure your coach has taken a certification course that includes a rigorous exam and a practicum. Ideally, the certification provider will offer ongoing continuing education and opportunities for professional growth as a coach.

This brings me to another important point about credentials and expertise: health coaches must practice within the scope of a certified health coach. We are not able to diagnose or treat medical disorders, we are not allowed to make recommendations regarding medications, we are not permitted to prescribe therapeutic diets, and we are not allowed to diagnose or treat mental health disorders. An experienced, credentialed health coach knows when someone needs more than she can offer and will refer a client to the appropriate practitioner(s) as needed. A professional health coach will be educated about contraindications and red flags that indicate someone may need psychiatric or medical intervention. For example, I can perform nutrition assessments and help you to improve your diet, but if you need anything beyond that, I can refer you to an outstanding RD for more in-depth dietary assistance. If you indicate that you have been feeling more than simply overwhelmed and have been struggling to get out of bed or find joy in the things you used to love, I will (with your permission) refer you to a behavioral health professional.

The National Society of Health Coaches (NSHC) defines health coaching as:

“…the use of evidence-based skillful conversation, clinical strategies and interventions to actively and safely engage clients in health behavior change to better self-manage their health, health risk, and acute or chronic health conditions resulting in optimal wellness, improved health outcomes, lowered health risk and decreased healthcare costs.”*

Qualifications, Risk and Responsibility*

Health coaching should be conducted by licensed/credentialed healthcare professionals who have the clinical education and training to safely guide clients with acute or chronic conditions or moderate to high health risk…”*

The NSHC differentiate health coaches from wellness coaches as follows:

Wellness coaches play an important role in disease and injury prevention as part of a healthcare team. However, clients with acute or chronic conditions, co-morbidities, or moderate to high health risk should be guided by a health coach, who has the professional credentials, legal authority, and specialized skills training given in this Statement to safely guide an individual of this type."*

My health coaching certification with the NSHC requires me to keep my professional healthcare license in good standing, and as a physical therapist, that means I am mandated to take a minimum of 30 contact hours of continuing education during each two year renewal cycle. This ensures that when I interact with physical therapy patients (in my role as a physical therapist) and when I interact with health coaching clients, I am providing the most current information and recommendations based on the latest scientific research and clinical information available. Additionally, the NSHC offers live and recorded video webinars on health coaching topics, and provides live health coaching practice sessions using real case studies so that their health coaches (like me) can continue to learn and improve their health coaching skills.

Finally, even the best educated, most highly credentialed health coach may not be the best fit for every individual. A professional health coach should always be willing to perform a free 20-30 minute mini assessment to determine whether or not you are meant to work together. He or she will then be able to refer you to another coach who may be a better match for you. A coach who truly has your best interests in mind will never hesitate to ensure that you have a coach who can best serve your unique needs.

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