Is a Health Coach a Good Fit for You? 4 Things to Know Before Hiring One

Kelsey Ogletree

You may have seen the term “health coach” being thrown around a lot lately. According to the Global Wellness Institute, the trend of health and wellness coaches is on the rise. In fact, membership in the International Coach Federation, an industry association dedicated to professional coaching, has risen to more than 34,000 members, up from 20,000 in 2013. So what, exactly, do health coaches do—and do you need one? Here’s what to know before making a decision.

What Is a Health Coach?

Health coaches are not know-it-alls who tell you exactly what to do to live your healthiest life. They’re not dietitians who can put together healthy eating plans, or personal trainers who offer custom workouts. Instead, they’re professionals trained to help you make behavioral changes and to feel inspired and motivated to take steps to positively change your life.

“People these days are under so much pressure with work and family demands, and feel like they can’t accomplish anything,” says Susan O’Connor, a wellness coach who’s leading GWI’s Coaching Initiative to empower more people to work with coaches. “[Wellness coaches] help them feel respected and understood, and to see their own ability to restore balance in their lives.”

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They do this by spending time speaking with clients, much in the way that a therapist would, asking questions that provoke deep thoughts, says Emma Heilbronner, a Boston-based health coach who does coaching primarily over the phone. For example, if a client wants to work out three times a week but isn’t achieving that goal, Heilbronner asks questions that get to the root of what’s causing him or her not to stick to that behavior. The key is helping that person find the intrinsic motivation to make behavioral change on their own.

“Weight and diet and exercise are a huge part of health coaching, but your health is so much more than that. It’s healthy movement, nutrition, rest, meaningful work—all of that combined.”

—Emma Heilbronner, health coach

Andy Lyons

What Does a Health Coach Do?

Not surprisingly, many health coaching clients are centered around weight loss, but usually, coaching that starts there gets to the heart of a bigger issue, says Heilbronner. “Weight and diet and exercise are a huge part of health coaching, but your health is so much more than that,” she says. “It’s healthy movement, nutrition, rest, meaningful work—all of that combined.” That’s why a goal initially centered around weight loss—i.e., a client struggling to lose 10 pounds or 100 pounds—often evolves into implementing behavioral change that helps them become a more healthy, vibrant person all around.

Related: Your Complete 2-Week Healthy Meal Plan

Other reasons to hire a health coach, says Heilbronner, include the following:

When to Consider Getting a Health Coach

So how do you know if a health coach will be helpful to add to your life (in addition to your OB/GYN, general practitioner, dentist, therapist, dermatologist…the list goes on)? The difference between health coaching and other types of therapy is that health coaching is focused entirely on the present and your vision for the future, rather than looking backward. “If you’re wanting to move forward in your life and change existing behaviors, then health coaching is for you,” says Heilbronner. She’s noticed an increase in parents seeking health coaching for their teenage daughters, too, at a time when parents need “all the help they can get” in shaping healthy habits.

The reason health coaching can be so effective is that a coach provides empathy and compassion. “[Health coaches] drive behavioral change by being an active listener and asking the right open-ended questions,” says O’Connor. The beauty of this, she adds, is that people become self-empowered and ready to take the first step toward change themselves.

Something to keep in mind, however, is that clinical training is not a requirement for health coaches globally. “It’s like the wild, wild west,” says Heilbronner, who completed the 16-week health coach certificate program offered through Emory University in Atlanta. Technically, anyone can call themselves a health coach, whether they’ve completed one of health coach certification programs out there or not. In the United States, however, the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching is becoming the standard and provides a searchable database of more than 2,300 health coaches who’ve met a minimum training and education requirement. If you’re thinking about hiring a coach, searching that directory is a smart place to find one near you.

The Cost to Hire a Health Coach

Pricing for health coaching varies widely from coach to coach, but O’Connor says in general, you can expect to pay anywhere from $150 a session to four figures or more for an extended program. It all depends on how often you want to meet. Some people may opt for a four-week intensive, seeing a health coach multiple times a week; others may opt for once a week for several months. You should check with your insurance company to see if health coaching is covered (often, it is, says O’Connor), or consider using a tax-free health care spending account.

It’s worth noting that there are health coaching apps out there that claim to help you manage your health, including tracking nutrition, exercise, sleep, and more. But they’re based on numbers and science rather than the human connection, serving a completely different purpose than an actual person when it comes to health coaching. “I believe face-to-face is critical for the effectiveness of [health coaching], which is based on trust,” says O’Connor. “You just can’t get the same results from an app.”