What Exactly Is A Wellness Coach?

Photographed by Andi Elloway.
At first, the title "wellness coach" sounds like a vague, self-proclaimed expertise that only Instagram influencers or Bachelor contestants use to market themselves. It's confusing because there are certainly plenty of unqualified people who slap on the title and dole out "health" advice to those who will pay for it. But legit wellness coaching is actually way more specified than it sounds, and some experts in the field are trying to change the way that people view the job.
So, what's the point of having a wellness coach? Broadly speaking, a wellness coach's goal is "to support individuals in improving and optimizing their health," says Ruth Wolever, PhD, director of Vanderbilt Health Coaching. Someone might see a wellness coach if they're living with a chronic illness, or at the end of their life and wanting to maximize wellness, Dr. Wolever says. Or if someone is generally healthy, then they might use a wellness coach to manage certain aspects of their health, like nutrition, exercise, or stress, Dr. Wolever says.
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If this still seems like a specialty tailored for those in the Goop crowd who have disposable income, or people who think modern medicine is B.S., it's not necessarily. Wellness coaches aren't doctors, and they're not meant to replace doctors, either. They've simply completed a certification course that provides them with the skills to motivate people to implement changes in their health regimen. In a perfect world, they might even work with your doctors, Dr. Wolever says. "The doctor has training — whether it's a dietitian, exercise physiologist, or psychologist — to assess what the problem is and treat it," she says. "What wellness coaches have is training to support you in enacting changes that may be suggested by the medical personnel; they're not advising you about what to change."

We will sustain our behavior better when we've determined how we're going to go about changing it and fitting it into our lives.

Ruth Wolever, PhD
As the name would suggest, coaching and encouragement is part of the job, too, explains Jacqueline Gould, a certified wellness coach in Chicago. Gould struggled with eating disorders as a young girl, and felt like clinicians didn't give her the motivation and emotional support she needed throughout her recovery. "I still felt alone, and I know it was because I didn't have that person who understood me," Gould says. "I needed someone who was willing to hold my hand through my journey, make it easy to follow through, and challenge me when I was feeling ready to give up." Today, Gould works in tandem with a therapist and a dietitian to help young women struggling with body confidence. Some wellness coaches will help clients build a supportive community that encourages healthy behavior, too, Dr. Wolever says.
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Every wellness coach is different, but the vast majority of coaching is done over the phone, according to Dr. Wolever. "People are often surprised at the sort of depth of a supportive relationship that can be developed over the phone," she says. Gould, for example, meets with people in person for one-hour sessions, will go to the grocery store with them, and even lets clients text her if need be.
Considering how broad their services can be, and the fact that "wellness coach" is such a catch-all term, in 2009 a group of psychologists and volunteers thought there had to be some sort of criteria for becoming a wellness coach. By 2015, they got the attention of the National Board of Medical Examiners, and were able to work together to implement standards for training and certification for people to become a National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach. "The national certification has a lot of weight in the sense that it's been done through a best-practice process, and that it’s been created with multiple players from many different training organizations: academia, industry, and government," Dr. Wolever says.
Today, a group of advisors run the International Consortium for Health and Wellness Coaching, which oversees all wellness coaches. The training is rigorous, and involves sitting for three exams, demoing three coaching sessions and receiving feedback, and completing a final pass-fail coaching assessment.
But aside from the right certification, what else should you look for in a wellness coach? It's important that they don't tell you what to do, but help you explore what you want to do and achieve, Dr. Wolever says. "Science is making it more and more clear that we will sustain our behavior better when we've determined how we're going to go about changing it and fitting it into our lives — as opposed to having someone just tell you what to do," she says. Your coach should also let you do the talking, rather than try to shove their agenda in your face, she says. "They should be focused on your strength and values, and eliciting your ideas for solving challenges that come about."
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Another factor to consider is the cost of hiring a wellness coach, since their services aren't always covered by insurance, according to Dr. Wolever. Wellness coaches who have a private practice usually charge between $25 and $100 per hour, and there are certainly people who will pay for the services out of pocker. But there are some ways that insurance will pay for your wellness coach, she says. For example, if you have a "bundled care package," you might be able to pay a lump sum of money to receive care from multiple doctors, and possibly a wellness coach. Plus, some insurance companies have wellness coaches on staff who are there to help members with certain diseases manage their health, Dr. Wolever says.
While wellness coaching is still a relatively new profession, Dr. Wolever thinks that once there's more recognition, people will realize the benefits from a health and financial perspective. According to the CDC, 75% of healthcare costs are based on a few conditions that are largely driven by behavior, she says. "There's begun to be a shift in attention to show that, if we could prevent worsening of conditions, much less prevent the conditions themselves, there's a benefit to society."
Choosing to hire a wellness coach is a personal decision, because plenty of people achieve their health goals on their own. But while it's not an absolutely necessary service, a coach might be just the right person you need to help you reach your goals — or figure out what they are in the first place.
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