Research has shown that certified health and wellness coaches significantly improve client wellness and patient health outcomes.
Health coaches are professionally trained in health behavior change theory and have a range of tools that are proven to be effective in helping people adopt or reinforce habits that promote all aspects of wellness.
From the perspective of prevention, health coaches can support clients in identifying behaviors that may increase their risks of developing chronic disease and can reinforce health-promoting behaviors the client already puts into practice.
Health coaches are also instrumental in supporting clients who have already been diagnosed with a disease or condition and who are seeking help in adopting habits that make sense for them (culturally, economically, and geographically) to manage the disease.
There is a growing need for health coaches in health systems where primary care physicians are overworked. Often, physicians interact with patients for only a few minutes. Without support, patients are left alone to decipher medications and make generalized lifestyle recommendations that make sense to them.
We know that health coaching is effective; the question is, what do health coaches do that make them so effective? Or, perhaps, if you are a health coach, how can you fortify your practice to make the best positive impact you can?
In this article, we explore what health coaches can do during and between sessions with their patients to improve their wellbeing.
What Health Coaches Can Do to Improve Their Client’s Wellbeing – Roles of the Health Coach
Providing information is perhaps one of the most used techniques to help improve a client’s wellbeing.
Training to become a health coach often focuses on research on best practices, techniques, causal relationships between behaviors and habits, and their effects on health, and trends. Most clients have not been as immersed in the research as their coaches have, and theý often look to their health coaches, in addition to their primary care providers, to gain access to and understand the information regarding their health and wellbeing.
Health coaches should try to provide information:
- Only after they have asked permission to provide information. If the client provides permission, they may be more receptive to what the coach is saying. If they don’t give permission (“I don’t want to hear about that right now.”; “I already know what I need to know.”; “I’m not in the right place to learn anything new right now.”), then the coach should respect their wishes and move on.
- That is specific to the topic at hand.
- Succinctly and using clear language.
- For which they are able to provide multiple examples.
Health coaches should generally avoid providing information that:
- Is unsolicited. Providing information that is unsolicited can often be interpreted as patronizing, and the client may not immediately understand why it is relevant to their case.
- The client specifically said they didn’t want to hear about or weren’t interested in. They have a right to decide if and when they are ready to examine their behaviors, learn about how they might be impacting their health, and make changes.
- Is about the client’s body, feelings, or experience (only your client can be an expert on themselves).
- Is shared specifically to make the client feel bad about their actions. Coaches should use empathy and validation to bridge an understanding of current health behaviors and share new information with the client’s permission.
- Is unproven or doesn’t have strong evidence to support it. It is essential that coaches stay up-to-date with the most recent research and guidelines in the coach’s area of expertise.
- Is out of the coach’s scope of practice.
Providing information is an important part of your coaching practice, but it is just one part. The next sections focus on other key roles.
Providing support on their wellness journey
Just a reminder—it is the client’s wellness journey, not the coach’s. Clients get to choose what is important to them, if and when they feel right making changes, and how to best achieve those changes. Providing support as a health and wellness coach can mean many things. It can mean:
- Providing scientific information about the benefits or setbacks of certain actions
- Providing best practices for ways to achieve changes
- Offering concrete tools that can help clients understand themselves better, track progress, and reach their goals
- Helping clients talk through difficulties and challenges and helping to identify ways to overcome them
- Helping clients identify a support system, including the coach, friends, family, or other clients
- Helping clients navigate other health services they receive or want to receive
The importance of providing validation is often underrated in the clinical health world, and it is a role that is often vital to the client-health coach relationship.
In health coaching, validation is the process by which coaches inquire about, understand, and show empathy for their client’s experiences, desires, and concerns. It is the result of clear and open communication on behalf of both client and coach and of the coach’s approach to each client. This is only made possible when the coach adopts a growth mindset and is open to receiving new information about how and why people adopt behaviors that affect their health.
Some key principles to providing validation to clients include:
- Actively listening to clients
- Being non-judgmental
- Using open and warm body language
- Summarizing and repeating their experience. “I hear you saying that cooking homemade meals for five people every day after work just became unrealistic. That’s when you started looking for options that allowed you to spend time with your family rather than in the kitchen.”
- Asking how experiences made them feel. “How did you feel after you received your diabetes diagnosis?”
- Letting them know you understand why some lifestyle recommendations may not be realistic for them. “When you don’t have an outdoor area where you feel safe, I can see how it can be difficult to increase your physical activity levels.”
- Building plans together with your client that take their worries, desires, and limitations into account.
- Taking a trauma-informed approach
While it is not recommended that you validate behaviors that have a direct negative impact on a client’s health (like smoking or eating gluten-containing foods if they have celiac disease), you can validate their emotions and express understanding as to why they have adopted or maintained behaviors.
Helping them to modify behaviors they want to change
Some behaviors have direct or indirect negative impacts on a person’s health and wellbeing. After getting to know your client, understanding why they came to you, and gaining an understanding of who they are and the context in which they live, you can work with your client to identify behaviors they are ready to modify or new behaviors they feel ready to adopt.
As health coaches trained in health behavioral theories, you can support your clients in moving from a stage of contemplating changes to taking action and maintaining behaviors.
For most people, it is very difficult to modify multiple habits or behaviors at once. As a health coach, you can take your client’s lead regarding the behavior they want and are ready to change.
Supporting them in trying things for the first time
Is your client ready to take action? For many of your clients, they may be trying something completely new for the first time, and getting out of their comfort zone may frighten them.
As a health coach, you can have an important role in supporting them in trying things for the first time.
This might mean:
- Going on a walk with them or spotting them at the gym
- Sending them a text message checking in before their first therapy session
- Being open to modifying a plan if it isn’t working
- Asking them how they feel before and after they try something for the first time
- Reminding them of their strength, bravery, and the source of motivation they disclosed to you
- Helping them envision how they might feel after making a new action a habit
- Helping them identify a support system
Once they try something for the first time, remember to show your support and encourage them to feel proud of themselves. Then, remember to continue to support them so that the new action or behavior becomes a habit.
Health professionals have a lot of important information and sometimes it can feel that if more people had access to that information, they would naturally adopt behaviors that promote their health and wellness. However, having access to information, through their health coach or otherwise, is just one piece of the puzzle for people to adopt health-promoting behaviors.
Health coaches have a wealth of information at their fingertips, but they also have multiple other roles in supporting their clients. In addition to providing information, health coaches also provide support and validation to their clients. They can support clients to adopt techniques and find the motivation to modify behaviors they want to change and support them in trying things for the first time.