Wellness Coaching: The Latest Trend in Fitness

Experts share tips about choosing a fitness professional who can put you on the road to better health.

From the WebMD Archives

Laurie Heit couldn't imagine working with a wellness coach. In fact, she didn't even know what a wellness coach was -- until one transformed her life.

A compulsive overeater, Heit had struggled with her weight since childhood. She went on diet after diet, and was finally ready to join an overeating support group when a friend told her about wellness coaching. She suggested Chere Bork, a registered dietitian and coach. Heit jumped at the chance.

After her first appointment, Heit was so impressed that she decided to do more. She has now had 12 telephone coaching sessions with Bork at a cost of $75 each. She insists they were worth every penny.

Although Heit has made significant improvements to her diet and lost weight, she says she's gained something far more important. Through the coaching process, Heit discovered that losing weight wasn't what she needed most. She longed to be at home with her family. So after debating the options, Heit quit her insurance job and became a full-time homemaker. She's never been happier.

"My goal didn't change, but how I got there did," she explains. "The time and exploration of the right food plan helped me explore myself and my wants in life."

Fitness Trends

According to a recent survey by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), "educated and experienced fitness professionals" now constitute the most important fitness trend in the world, having jumped from third to first place since last year. "Personal trainers" rose from seventh to third place.

"We want to be well. We yearn to be in control and feel better. We want more energy," says Margaret Moore, founder of Well Coaches, the only health and wellness coaching certification program endorsed by the ACSM. "But there is an enormous gap between wanting to be well and the everyday reality of living with the mental and physical health penalties of overeating, underexercising, and having too little down time."

That gap is growing. The CDC reports that more than 66% of adult Americans are overweight or obese. Worse still, about a third of the adult population is obese.

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Doctors' Views on Wellness Coaching

That's one of the reasons why Moore and other wellness coaches have been working to increase awareness about the field among medical professionals. Moore readily admits, however, that although the idea is becoming increasingly popular with the public, it's only beginning to catch on with doctors.

"Physician referral to coaches is still at an early stage," she says. "We don't have reimbursement, and it's going to take years to fall into place. We see grass-roots, small-scale doctors coming to us. But most physicians just aren't into it yet. It's still very new."

One doctor who has embraced the idea is Michael Lano, MD. Director of the Ridgeview Clinics, a group of primary care facilities in suburban Minneapolis, Lano refers several patients a month to Bork.

"I'm a family physician and I always tell my patients that it's my job to help them live a long, healthy life," he says. "But 98% is their part, and that's what the life coach helps with -- everything from diet and exercise to emotional well-being. It's the same thing that we [doctors] deal with, but she deals with it from a lifestyle perspective."

Lano says he sees significant improvements in patients who work with Bork. Most begin exercising and eating better. Many make other important changes as well, which tend to have a boomerang effect on their overall outlook and lifestyle, as they did with Heit.

Ideal Candidates for Wellness Coaching

However, not everyone is a good candidate for wellness coaching, says Lano. Some may be too old or sick to change. Others may simply be unmotivated. The ideal patient is someone who may not be doing anything bad, but they're not doing the good things, either, he says. "They're not eating well. They're not exercising. They're stressed. They're stuck. They're not making progress."

Jim Harburger found himself in that situation. The 66-year-old clinical psychiatrist began to gain weight 32 years ago when he abandoned his heavy smoking habit. Gradually, his weight began to creep from 165 pounds to 220 pounds.

Much of the problem, Harburger says, was stress from his high pressure job as the director of a large behavioral health organization. But the trigger was the daily gift of sweets offered by his secretaries, which Harburger found irresistible.

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"The metaphor was that I was being eaten alive by my job, but I was actually eating to handle the anxieties from my work," he says.

Harburger joined a gym. But like so many others, he found it hard to get there and went only sporadically. Desperate, he finally decided to hire a personal trainer. The gym recommended Ellen Albertson, a staff member who was a registered dietitian, a licensed nutritionist, a certified personal trainer, and a licensed corporate wellness coach.

Albertson began each session with 20 minutes of walking, during which time she and Harburger would talk.

"One might think I could walk on my own, but what she was doing was listening to me about my life, learning about how I managed eating, the stressors in my life, and my relationship to my body," he explains. "She became familiar, almost like a good therapist, with all aspects of my life. And slowly, she built a relationship that I started to value."

Albertson also helped Harburger manage his cravings. A self-confessed sugar addict, he likened it to withdrawal from cocaine. "I felt my body shaking, I couldn't think, and I was in total transition for almost a week," he says. "Now I know that if I have a cookie, I need to separate myself from what I am eating or I will just keep eating."

The result? Harburger, who visits the gym almost every day now, dropped 40 pounds over a three-year period.

Albertson says she sees it all the time. People come in expecting to be told what to do, but what actually works best for them is to slow down, think about their goals, and then determine the path themselves.

"People are out of touch with their bodies. When you listen to your body, you eat when you're hungry, you stop when you're full, and you enjoy food for its rightful place in your life," she says.

Looking for the Right Wellness Coach

Michael Arloski, PhD, is the author of Wellness Coaching for Lasting Change, a training manual used by several coaching programs, works with dozens of corporate clients, training them on the finer points of coaching for long-term lifestyle changes.

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"We need to move from 'prescribe and treat,' or what I like to call 'education and implore' -- where we're begging someone to change after we give them a lot of information -- to a coaching model where we're advocating for change and becoming an ally with that person," he says.

Not everyone who calls himself a coach -- especially a wellness coach -- is qualified, however. Because certification is neither standardized nor required, searching for a good wellness coach is still a case of buyer beware.

"Coaching is a fairly new field, and someone can call themselves a health coach and not have any credentials attached to that. There is no national certification out there to protect people. There are also a lot of matchbook credentials. Anybody can put a shingle out there and call themselves a coach," says Albertson.

To determine whether a coach is reputable, Moore suggests checking references and asking for testimonials. Look for people with degrees or certification from reputable organizations and then interview them extensively about their background.

Ideally, a wellness coach should have at least two years of experience working one-on-one with clients, and preferably a year of coaching experience following training. Other qualities to look for include professionalism, passion, confidence, and humility, so be sure to interview several before making a decision. Credible ones will offer a free initial consultation.

Moore advises choosing a coach who makes you feel the most energized and confident. You should be inspired after a coaching session, with lots of "Aha!" moments, as well as motivated about your ability to make needed changes in your life.

Plan to pay between $50 and $150 a session, and expect to spend at least three months with a coach before seeing meaningful progress, which is typically defined as the creation of two or three healthy new habits. And don't hesitate to end the relationship if something doesn't feel right.

In addition to his dramatic weight loss, Harburger says the changes have had a positive effect on his career. Harburger's wellness coaching has led him to return to private practice and reduce his workweek to 75%.

"I struggled with giving myself permission to do that, but it was miraculous. Before, I would never have initiated that. Now, I feel so unencumbered," he says. "It's like I'm on constant vacation."

WebMD Feature Reviewed by Louise Chang, MD on June 10, 2008

Sources

SOURCES:

Laurie Heit, coaching client.

Jim Harburger, coaching client.

Margaret Moore, chief executive officer, Wellcoaches Corp.

Michael Lano, MD, director, Ridgeview Clinics.

Michael Arloski, PhD, author, Wellness Coaching for Lasting Change.

Chere Bork, RD, certified wellness coach.

Ellen Albertson, RD, CPT, certified wellness coach.

CDC web site.

Birch, K. Johns Hopkins Public Health, Fall 2007; online edition.

American College of Sports Medicine web site.

World Health Organization web site

National Institute of Diabetes web site.

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