I just got a new degree in July; it’s a mouthful, Post-baccalaureate certificate in Complementary Therapies and Healing Practices-Health Coaching track, but we were theoretically training to be “health coaches” The problem is this new profession already seems to be gelling into something different than what we were trained to do. Though I have some entrepreneurial impulses, I did not feel up to doing a business plan during election season. So I did some preliminary looking at working for someone else, and health coaching at larger companies that would hire usually involves the company identifying who is a health risk and then having the health coach cheerlead (or nag) the employee to quit smoking, lose weight or whatever over the phone in order to save the company money. This could still benefit the employee, but it is not exactly what I was taught.
Shortly before I finished the degree, I wrote an article (below the fold) I hoped to get in a local publication. They did not use it, but it explains what felt I learned how to do. And even then I had misgivings about our title, but what would I use instead?
I almost wish we didn’t call ourselves health coaches since the word coach conjures a picture of a football coach yelling at his players to “hit someone!” What I learned to do is very different from that; it’s a listening and dialoging process to bring out your inner wisdom to make the lifestyle changes you desire. We create a container, a safe confidential space, for your transformation. We look at the big picture, considering physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of health, because we know all these aspects impact the others. For instance, job stress can impact blood pressure. This holistic view is one of our main distinctions. A personal trainer will help you with your fitness goals and may even get into diet, but it unlikely to ask about your social network.
Health coaching also differs from other professions in its focus on health issues and future growth, and using a partnership model. There is much similarity with life coaches as they also help the client work towards his or her future goals, but we start from your health concerns rather than career goals or life purpose. Unlike a mental health professional, we are not so much concerned with healing the past though we may ask about it for better understanding. We do refer to therapists when necessary, but often find our clients already have a therapist! Most important is that we work with you as an equal, not as The Expert. We want you to take charge of your health and help you with your goals, so we would not tell you need to lose weight, but if you wanted to learn to better eating habits we would work with you on that.
Lifestyle changes like starting an exercise program, healthier eating, and quitting smoking are common reasons for people to seek out a health coach. We can also help with stress management and finding a better life balance. Stress is estimated to be a factor in 70% of the conditions that send people to the doctor’s office. There is a lot of over-doing in modern society, and your health coach can help you sift through priorities and learn self-care techniques such as breath work. We can also teach these kinds of skills for living with a chronic illness.
Your doctor might like to be able to work with you in this way, but may be limited by time or HMO rules. Health coaches take the time to listen, guide, teach and partner with you towards your desired outcome. We see you as already whole and wise, not a broken machine to be fixed.
A few months before I found the health coaching program at the University of Minnnesota, I could have used a health coach myself. I found out I had mild hypertension and my doctor wanted to put me on a diuretic. I had just come out of disastrous relationship and had not been taking good care of myself, and even worse care of my finances, and was under a lot of stress and dealing with peri-menopause. I rather foolishly expected my doctor to be able to work with me on all these things, but that was really outside the scope of her training. Luckily I had enough background knowledge to seek help from an herbalist, who recommended herbs and supplements that helped lower blood pressure directly, and indirectly through supporting the peri-menopausal changes. I also saw a social worker to help with the stress and relationship fall-out, and I used my online employee wellness program to track diet and exercise improvements. These combined approaches did get my blood pressure back to normal, but it was a lot of work! A health coach can be there to make it easier for you.
Health coaches come from a variety of backgrounds. In the program at the University of Minnesota, where I got my certificate, some health care background is required to earn it. Among my classmates and teachers, we have mental health professionals, R.N.s, M.D.s, and my undergrad degree was in dietetics. We are all interested in a new way of relating to clients. Many of us had frustrations with the hierarchical model of telling patients what to do, and are excited about the partnership model of supporting the client’s goals. Many of us had also begun exploring complementary therapies on our own; I was not the only one who had used them to better manage a chronic condition. There are loads of interesting degrees that you can study if you want a career in healthcare, Click Here to learn about your options.
Our education includes active listening, motivational interviewing, understanding the change process, an overview of complementary therapies, business management, and perhaps most important, self-awareness. Our earlier classes helped us work on our own issues, and keep them from blocking our ability to be present for our clients. We then moved into practicing coaching each other, then volunteers, and the last semester is a professional internship.
Working with a health coach, you can expect to feel truly heard; I have had sessions where active listening on my part was 90% of what went on. You can get a better understanding of your goals and support in reaching them. We’ll guide you through complementary therapy options, and you’ll have the chance to learn self- care techniques, like breath work or eating mindfully. We hope to be helping many of you take charge of your own health in the future.
I once joked to my program director that she was really training us to be certified witches since I found a lot of overlap between what we were learning and my spiritual path. 🙂 However, I don’t think a “certified witch” would be very marketable. I think I want a way to differentiate myself from the kind of health coaches described in the first paragraph, who may use similar skills, but aren’t really using the partnership model or a holistic framework..
So what term or title would better describe to you what we do for our clients?