What is a Health Coach, anyway?

So, I realized I told you that I was available for coaching, but really didn’t tell you what a coach does. Important information, poor delivery on my part.

The truth is that there is no one, standard definition of a coach. Anyone can really hang a shingle and call themselves a Coach. Just like behavior analysis was 20 years ago, there isn’t any uniform certification or licensure.

So, as they say, buyer beware.

I’ll start with the scope of practice of a Health Coach. I’m certified with the American Council on Exercise (ACE), who sets forth this specific set of guidelines. Basically, a coach is a person who guides an individual to a set of self-identified health and fitness goals. They are there to provide structure and encouragement, much like an athletic coach would do.

It’s also important to state what is outside of the scope of practice of a Health Coach. They are not a replacement for a trainer, physical therapist, doctor, nutritionist, or most importantly, a licensed mental health professional. Some of the practices we use might overlap – for example, looking at the USDA Choose My Plate recommendations for healthy eating to evaluate whether someone’s choice of diet plan is a good idea. However, if you’re asking for a meal plan, that is outside of the scope of practice. I might use values-based interviewing to determine your priorities and goals, but I’m not qualified to counsel you should you disclose depression or anxiety. Ideally, I’m part of a bigger team who helps you be your best self.

As we’ve talked about before, there is a lot of snake oil out there, and Health Coaching is no exception. A good Health Coach stays on top of the peer-reviewed literature and makes sure their approaches and suggestions are all based upon the latest evidence. Be wary of someone who says, “I’m just a coach who has no time for all that research stuff.” I personally like the red flags from Seek Safely to evaluate any events or programs you might be considering.

What about credentials? A good coach has some sort of training and certification. Here, too, you have to be careful about what type. Anyone can go to a two-day workshop and say they are certified to be a coach. There are, however, some standards to look for that can increase your confidence in a coach.

  • They hold a license or some sort of certification in behavior change (e.g., licensed psychologist or social worker, Board Certified Behavior Analyst, etc…). This is good, but not necessary.
  • They hold a license or some sort of certification in health and wellness (e.g., Personal Trainer, Registered Nutritionist/Dietician, M.D., R.N., etc….). Again good, but not necessary. In some cases, such as in trainer and nutritionist, you might want to dig further into those credentials to make sure they are also legit.
  • Their certification is from a reputable source. OK, how do I know that? Here are some things to look for: 1) The organization is established and recognized in the field of health and wellness. Some examples include, but aren’t limited to, the American Council on Exercise, Functional Medicine Coaching Academy, and the National Academy of Sports Medicine. 2) The certification is itself credentialed. There are two approvals to look for: National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) approval, or accreditation from the International Coach Federation (ICF). Coaches can also be credentialed directly through ICF, which is considered a high honor.

There is also always just general fit with your goals and values. Each coach has a way of interacting with their clients based upon their values and personality. Just because you don’t “click” with one coach doesn’t mean that another won’t be the perfect fit. As with any big life decision, do your homework, and pick the coach that is best for you. In my next post, I’ll talk a bit about what to expect from a coaching experience.

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