Does Anyone Really Need a Professional Health Coach?

By
Photo: Getty Images

There are certain social norms that fall by the wayside when you work from home like I do, such as putting on a bra or refraining from eating handfuls of Goldfish crackers for lunch instead of Sweetgreen.

Due to a lack of judgmental people surrounding me all day, and the presence of a pantry situated four feet from the kitchen table that I use as a desk, I’ve put on about 15 pounds over the last year. I am well-aware of how to lose weight — I’ve done it before. I’m personally interested in fitness and I work out regularly. But to steal a word from therapy, I am self-sabotaging. When I weigh myself or try on a pair of old jeans and don’t like the results, I hit the chocolate.

All of this theoretically makes me an ideal candidate for health coaching. According to the Health Coach Institute (HCI), a health coach is a “master of habit change.” Health coaches trained at HCI go through a $5,450 six-month online program of “psychology, brain science, intuitive listening, habit change, and healthy lifestyle design.” In other words, it supposedly gives students the skills to help their clients stop mindlessly eating children’s snack food.

HCI offered me a few gratis coaching sessions and I accepted, despite the fact that I once tried talk therapy and hated it. I’m not a talker. (My bad verbal-communication skills are one of the reasons I needed therapy in the first place.)

There’s no official regulatory body that licenses health coaches or defines their scope of practice, and there are multiple entities claiming to certify you as a health coach. (The Institute for Integrative Nutrition is probably one of the better-known health-coaching programs, but there are tons.) It’s a fast-growing market, and HCI says their enrollment is up 300 percent. There have been a few studies by insurance companies noting that health coaching can be beneficial to people by helping them make healthy habit changes, though it’s not clear how long-lasting they are. The American Medical Association even recently recommended that doctors use health coaches in their practices.

Health coaches from HCI are trained to offer a 90-day program, for which they charge clients $1,000 to $1,500, depending on their level of experience and services offered. Individual sessions can cost $150 to $200 and up.

Sylvaine Hughson, the director of special projects and strategic initiatives at HCI (and a practicing health coach herself), says that many people take the HCI health-coach training program to first get healthier themselves, then they turn it into a career. HCI also provides business training, so students can set up health-coaching businesses after they graduate.

Some health coaches have office space or see clients in clinics or doctors’ offices, while some work virtually with clients, over Skype or on the phone. My coach, Christine, did 45-minute phone sessions with me. Texting, my preferred method of communication, unfortunately wasn’t an option. Prior to the call, I filled out a questionnaire about my issues.

I’m going to admit right now that I was hostile to Christine going in. The first thing she did was ask me to tell her three things that were going well with my life. Crickets from me, because it’s obviously more fun to complain. Then she said she was there to help me get to “the best version of myself.” The only person who should ever be allowed to use that phrase is Oprah.

During the call, Christine’s tone was controlled and weirdly hypnotic, in a way that was disconcerting to me. She used phrases like “clear the clutter” and, at one point, “I want to take a breath in for that,” after something I said. I finally admitted to being a skeptic about the process, while also really, genuinely wanting to stop eating crap for no reason. “I love skeptics,” she said — calmly, hypnotically, gently.

“What’s important about the health-coach experience is you work with multiple areas of a client’s life,” Hughson says. “While they come to you with one specific problem, there are other areas explored as part of the process. As that client shifts and transforms and develops an awareness and starts to have more concrete tools to work with, it’s important for there to be support and stability.” I saw this strategy in action.

Christine came to the conclusion that I didn’t see friends enough and that I spent too much time alone, which was not untrue. But was I eating Oreos every afternoon because I was missing my friends, who are all probably secretly eating their stress away too? I told Christine during the first call that I really needed some concrete strategies, and that I have a hard time talking about issues in terms of feelings and desires.

The second call went better, mostly because I was 1,000 percent nicer to poor Christine — who, after all, was giving me her services for free. I talked more. I “gave in to the process.” I even came ready for the call, armed with one single almond, which Christine had asked me to bring during our previous session.

After taking three cleansing breaths, we both put our almonds in our mouths and proceeded to chew them 35 times. I can tell you that after about 20 chews, an almond gets totally liquefied. It was a struggle to get to 35.

The point, of course, was to be mindful and taste your food. While it was extreme, it wasn’t a bad exercise, and I’ve since been trying to chew my Goldfish crackers more thoughtfully.

After only two sessions, I didn’t expect to get results, but I did admittedly get some good ideas. Christine told me to have an “anchor” — something that I can do instead of eating when I get a craving. Some people listen to a particular song, but I decided to make mine getting up out of my chair and walking out onto my balcony for a minute or two. It works, sometimes.

The other helpful strategy is shutting down my computer when I eat meals, rather than working while shoveling in food. I don’t know if this has made me make healthier choices during the rest of the day, but putting work away for 20 minutes does clear my brain, and I usually come back to it feeling a bit fresher, with new ideas.

Honestly, though, I don’t know if talking to a person once a week would make me feel more accountable. The first two sessions just made me feel squirmy and uncomfortable — but plenty of people have had success with health coaching.

Danielle Codere, who worked as a customer-service representative at HCI and says she felt “self-conscious” about being overweight in a company filled with “healthy people,” did a 90-day coaching session with one of HCI’s founders. She lost 12 pounds, and she’s since started another coaching session (for which she paid $1,500) with someone else. She’s lost 52 pounds of her 100-pound goal.

“Working with a health coach has changed my life drastically. It increased my level of power, of feeling empowered in my own body,” Codere says. She was also taught the chewing-something-many-times trick, and says that the strategy that helps the most is “trading in judgment for curiosity.” In other words, instead of beating herself up over eating candy, she questions her emotions and feelings about why she wants the candy.

I think health coaching would work best for someone who is really, truly motivated to make a change. Right now, I’m questioning my emotions about whether or not I’m that person. I’ll chew thoughtfully in the meantime and try to figure it out.

How Exercise Shapes You, Far Beyond the Gym