As the cost of healthcare skyrockets and baby boomers come into retirement, making strides to prevent illness (and avoid paying out of pocket for it later) has never been more important. The prescription seems simple enough—healthy diet and exercise—but if you've fallen off the wagon so many times you feel like you're always walking beside it, a lifestyle or wellness coach could provide the support you need. These professionals are trained to help you stay the course on your health journey despite your stress, busy schedule, lack of motivation, or other emotional roadblocks you face. If you're unsure what it is that's truly keeping you from your goals, a lifestyle coach is equipped to dig in and find the answer. (Search: Tips for attainable goals)
Wellness coaching was recently identified by the American College of Sports Medicine as a top health and fitness trend for 2012, as the prevalence and interest in holistic health and fitness programs peaked in the past few years. "I didn't know I was looking for a wellness coach but I knew I was looking for something more than the training I was participating in," says Kelley Ahuja, 41, a human resources professional in Chicago. After two children and two unplanned C-sections, Ahuja wanted to reclaim her flat tummy, regain her sense of peace and balance, and boost her sapped energy. Hoping an exercise regimen was the cure, she endured 18 months of rigorous boot camp and personal training sessions, but the busy mom wasn't feeling enthusiastic or particularly inspired by her journey. "I wasn't extremely happy with what I was doing but I thought it was my only option," she says. "But then I met Stephanie."
Enter Stephanie Mansour, a certified lifestyle coach who specializes in body image and confidence coaching in addition to holding credentials in personal training, yoga, and Pilates. "As Stephanie was busting my chops making me work hard physically, she was also talking to me and challenging me to look at myself in new and different ways," says Ahuja, who met with Mansour two or three times a week in addition to a weekly phone consultation. "I would talk about my ab muscles being dead and she would tell me that they were just sleeping, and that it was time to wake them back up. She completely changed my mental outlook. The effects of the C-sections weren't something I consciously dwelled on, but it was clear I was carrying a lot of emotional baggage from them."
A lifestyle or wellness coach's function is as varied as clients' needs: Some coaches deal in body image issues, others in compulsive eating behaviors, and many aren't sure of the barriers to wellness their clients face until they're a few meetings in. "The role of the first couple of sessions is to stand back and reflect on the state of things as they stand," says Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches, which, in partnership with the American College of Sports Medicine, launched the first coach training school for health professionals in 2002. "It's kind of like a tour around the major domains of your life—discovering what's working well for you that you can build on, and determining where you want to start. The goal is to find the string that will unravel the whole ball."
When Ahuja dialed in for one of her first phone consultations with Mansour, she already had a plan for the chat. "I'm a bit type A and I had the agenda we would follow in mind. I thought 'I'm going to share X, Y, and Z,'" she says. "I don't even remember the exact question she asked me, but somehow I started talking about the C-sections scar and how my stomach looked and suddenly I was in tears. Everyone has mental barriers but until someone can relate to you and help you break through that barrier, you're not going to meet your goal—and I hadn't."
Mental and emotional obstacles aren't always addressed in traditional personal training and nutritional consultations, but they're issues that can derail even the best-laid workout or eating plan's progress as soon as a client hits a bump in the road. "A typical personal trainer is focused on your workout and what's going on with your physical body," says Mansour. "Coaching is more concerned with your emotions and the aspects of your life affecting your wellness. Coaches want to know what drives you to follow through with the workouts on your own, how you feel when you eat junk food, what you think when you see yourself in the mirror. They ask probing questions to get to the bottom of why you're not sticking to the plan. And then they work with you to reengineer your thinking and behaviors to help you stay on track." It's a more holistic approach that's sensitive to the fact that maintaining your physical body isn't the only player in personal wellness. Coaches delve into the emotional and mental factors that affect our motivation and willingness to stick to a healthy lifestyle.
If the issues tackled in coaching sound similar to the terrain navigated in therapy, you're not completely mistaken. But clinical psychology isn't covered in the coaching curriculum and when a coach does come across an instance of minor or major trauma in a client's life, he or she will suggest that the client sees a professional. "There is quite a bit of overlap in skills between coaching and therapy but they are distinctly different," says Moore, who is also co-director of the Institute of Coaching at McLean Hospital, an affiliate of Harvard Medical School. "Therapy generally doesn't have a goal that you march toward week by week whereas coaching is very goal-oriented." And while therapy often works to uncover past trauma in order to better understand a present behavior, lifestyle coaching aims to help clients identify behavior that's harmful to their health goals, and then execute a plan for positive change. In other words, coaches are more akin to mentors than they are doctors.
"A lot of people know what they should be eating and what to do for exercise," says Moore. "Knowing what to do isn't the missing piece for most people. It's the how. And no two people are the same—there's no formula for success. But a coach is really good at finding what motivation works for their client." It's a collaborative process that requires brainstorming, experimentation, and a healthy amount of trial and error, she says.
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The process also requires a willingness to change. "I think you have to pick just the right time when you're really ready," says Moore. "You need to want to make changes that last." Another key requirement is willingness to make your life an open book: "Coaches do make it a point to tell clients that they need to be honest in order for coaching to truly be effective and helpful—because if they're not, they can undermine results. It's like failing to tell your physician that you're a smoker," says Mark Teahan, director of the Spencer Institute and master instructor at National Exercise & Sports Trainers Association. "The truth and honesty factor as well as the open flow of communication are vital to the process."
Many coaches also offer constant communication and support. Coaches' accessibility via e-mail and phone, and also through text message, Facebook, and Skype provides clients with an around the clock support system, which fosters a close bond many clients say is the key to their success. "When I want to celebrate something, Stephanie is one of the first people I think of," says Ahuja, who's worked with Mansour for more than a year now and is thrilled with the physical and emotional effects of her coaching. "You need to have your head on straight. You can't be your best if your head isn't on straight," she says.
Ready for a coach? Here's what to look for
Qualifications: Still in its infancy, the coaching industry is largely unregulated and it isn't difficult for an expert in the health field to add a "wellness coach" title to his or her card. Reputable coach-training programs require 6 months to 2 years of training and coaching practice, followed by a certification process that measures core coaching competencies.
Glowing Testimonials: If a coach has a website, he or she may post testimonials, but don't shy away from asking to be put in touch with past clients if you want to gain a better sense of a coach's track record.
Area of Specialization and/or Past Work: Many coaches are also professionals in other areas of health like personal training, nutrition, nursing, physical rehabilitation, and so on. If you have a specific goal like weight loss, healthier eating, or overcoming injury, choose a coach with credentials in the area of health that supports that goal.
Chemistry: You should come away from your first session already inspired and ready to work. That excitement will continue to drive you toward success. "When I met Stephanie everything about her just drew me in," says Ahuja. "I loved her energy, competence, and technical knowledge within 15 minutes of meeting her."