Are health coaches legit?
I had never heard of health coaches before I worked at Well+Good and it became my job to interview wellness experts for a living. I had a vague idea of them meeting with clients, but wasn't quite sure how they were different than dietitians or nutritionists—or even if they were legit.
If, like I was, you're vaguely aware of holistic health coaches, but aren't quite sure what they do and what it takes to become one, keep reading. Now that I'm one myself—surprise!—I can tell you all about it.
Spoiler alert: Yes, holistic health coaches are very much legit.
What does a holistic health coach do, exactly?
After it seemed like everyone I was meeting in the wellness world was a holistic health coach, I decided to find out for myself first-hand what they're about. I went to an open house hosted by the Institute for Integrative Nutrition (IIN), the world's largest health coaching program. They broke it down to me this way: You know how there are trainers who help keep your fitness on point? Health coaches are trainers for other areas of your life, primarily diet and eating habits. And holistic health coaches look at the whole picture (meaning besides food) to help clients with other issues, such as time management, anxiety, and stress.
Unlike doctors, health coaches can't diagnose clients with specific conditions. And while nutritionists and dietitians may put clients on specific eating plans to treat specific issues, the role of a health coach is to help you find the tools and skills you need to reach your health goals. If, for example, you want to try going plant-based but still have to make dinner for the whole family (who is used to eating meat-centric meals), a health coach can help create a meal plan. Or if you want to eat healthier but have a crazy schedule and never seem to have time to meal prep or work out, a health coach can help with time management. If something a client is grappling with is outside the scope of a holistic health coach, they would refer that person to another credentialed professional for extra support.
Holistic Health Coaches vs Wellness Coaches and Life Coaches
You may also hear the term “wellness coach” in the health and wellness space, which can make understanding different wellness titles a little tricky. According to Hilary Russo, an IIN-certified holistic health coach, both holistic health coach and wellness coach are terms that are often used interchangeably to refer to coaches. However, the difference is in the word holistic. “A holistic health coach focuses on the whole body and takes a more integrative approach,” she explains. “Meaning, it's common to focus on dietary and environmental support for a client.”
To be clear, holistic health coaches aren’t nutritionists or dietitians nor do they need a degree in nutrition to become a health coach. However, Russo says that if you go through an accredited program like IIN, you learn a lot about dietary theories. Rather, one of the focuses of holistic health coaching is bio-individuality, which Russo explains is the understanding that everyone requires different support based on their specific needs.
And generally, a holistic health coach not only supports others in living a holistic life, they also practice it themselves. “Walking the walk and living by example creates a more powerful space for trust, communication and understanding between you and your client,” Russo says. Holistic health coach Joanne Encarnacion is a great example of practicing what you preach.
Life coaches are also a bit different. While holistic health coaches support clients with their dietary journey as well as offer physical and emotional support, Russo says life coaches tend to focus on personal and professional development in a particular niche or area. Examples of life coaching niches include career development, financial, communication and public speaking, emotional and spiritual health, and relationships and dating. That said, Russo notes that many health coaches also have education and certifications in areas also covered in life coaching so there may be some overlap.
What are the benefits of being a health coach?
It’s rewarding work.
I became interested in health coaching because I saw it as another way to help people. Sure, writing articles with need-to-know info is one way. But working one-on-one with clients with their specific health needs is another, and I find it really rewarding. I can tell you first-hand that many times people come in with the goal of talking about food, but often the sessions become so much more than that. For example, if someone says they have a problem with excessive snacking after work, talking with a health coach might help them realize that their post-work eating might be linked to intense stress at work, or just because they're not getting enough filling protein and healthy fats at lunch. I love helping my clients work through these roadblocks.
It benefits your own wellbeing.
Russo notes that another top benefit of becoming a health coach is how it can help improve your own wellbeing. “The best way to support others is to start with yourself first,” she says. “You have to be your own health care advocate first, and that means learning how to live your best life and what works best for your specific needs.” All things a holistic health coaching certification programs empowers you to do.
It provides a lot of options.
Many health coaches have clients, but that isn't the only career path people take. Some choose to blog or write books with their tips. Others may launch a wellness-minded business. Health coaches can also work full time in hospitals or clinics alongside doctors, nutritionists, or dietitians. In other words, there are a lot of paths you can take as a holistic health coach, which in and of itself supports wellbeing. “It gives you more freedom to work for yourself,” Russo says of health coaching. “And the more you are in alignment with living a healthy life, you’ll create a ripple effect by supporting others on their holistic health journey.”
How to become a holistic health coach
1. Do your research to find the right program.
Like everything else, step one of becoming a holistic health coach starts with a little Googling. There is no one organization that reinforces specific course requirements or hours needed to train, nor is a license required to practice. Because of this, it's important to look into programs to make sure they require rigorous coursework and training to ensure you're getting legit info and skills.
Besides IIN, some other popular holistic health coaching programs include IAWP and American Fitness Professionals & Associates. Universities are also starting to offer holistic health coaching. It's important to consider factors like cost, duration, and if the structure will work with your schedule. IIN, for example, is a 6-month or year-long program (depending on which you prefer) and costs $6,000.
The Best Holistic Health Coaching Programs
- IIN Health Coach Training Program
- Precision Nutrition Level 1 Nutrition Certification
- Emory University Health and Wellness Certificate
- Duke University Health Coach Professional Training Certification
- Dr. Sears Wellness Institute Health Coach Certification
- ACE Fitness Certificate
- HCI Dual Life & Health Coach Certificate Program
- National Society of Health Coaches Evidence-based Health Coach Certification
For me, IIN was the best choice given the price, structure, and topics. It gave the choice of either a year-long program or a six-month program (where you do the same amount of work as the year-long one, just in a shorter time frame.) Because I was working full-time on top of being in the program, I chose the year-long program.
Another indicator that a program is worth your attention is seeing who their graduates are and if they have strong client testimonials. If a program is getting bad reviews on Better Business Bureau, it's probably not worth your time or money.
I also recommend comparing different schools' course topics. Maybe one place has a point of view about health and nutrition that doesn't quite gel with your own, or they're offering classes that feel really boring or basic. That's another good hint that it's not the right choice for you.
2. Talk to people who have done it.
Because you're likely about to drop a few thousand dollars on health coaching school it's important to not just rely on the program sites themselves to make your decision. When I was deciding whether or not to enroll in a program, I asked people who had done it what they thought about their experience. Of course, I have access to lots of health coaches and experts as part of my job. But I have found that sending an email or Instagram DM to someone telling them you are interested in becoming a health coach and are wondering if you could pick their brain almost always works, too.
Questions to consider asking: How much time did you spend a week on the course? Do you have a chance to do practice client sessions with other students so that you're prepared for paying clients after graduating? Is it fun? Has it helped your career?
3. Do the work.
Once you make your decision, the next step is actually enrolling and, you know, completing your course requirements. I committed about five to eight hours per week to watching video lectures and taking quizzes at the end of each lecture. Like other programs, IIN had bigger online tests as part of the curriculum. There were also mandatory small groups with other students, done via phone. The small groups were really helpful for test prep and practice exams, and also provided a safe space to talk about any fears or questions that came up. Chances are, someone else is wondering the same thing!
4. Do practice sessions.
Every certifiable holistic health coaching program requires students to do practice coaching sessions while still enrolled. To graduate from IIN's program, I had to complete five practice sessions. I practiced with my friends and colleagues, but others may choose family members or even other students in the program. This is a safer, less stressful environment to help you develop your skills working with clients, so you're more comfortable once you've graduated doing it on your own.
5. Build your business plan.
Even before you finish your course, start putting your business plan together. Who do you want your clients to be? Are they busy moms with the goal of weight loss? Maybe you want to specialize in something, such as catering to vegans or executives in fast-paced, high-stress jobs. The key, according to Russo, is to allow your passion to guide you. “If you are drawn to one area specifically—let’s say you want to focus on hormone health or perhaps you love vegan recipes—you’ll enjoy exploring ways to promote it,” she says.
Once you find your niche, put a plan together about how you're going to secure clients. Are you going to launch a website and create fliers? Are you going to approach medical professionals, suggesting a partnership? Or, Russo adds, maybe you have a passion for writing, in which case, maybe blogging could be a great way to share your expertise.
Part of many health coaching programs, including IIN's, includes teaching students exactly how to do this. Some will even make business cards for their students free of charge or give blueprints for fliers. Most also provide form templates health coaches can give clients to fill out, once they're ready.
But as for actually making connections in your community—such as finding other health professionals to partner with—that's all you. It's up to you to reach out and ask to meet with doctors, dietitians, or other experts you wish to partner with, asking if they are open to hearing how you can enrich their offerings. Whatever way you go about it, Russo says building your community and finding mentors you trust and respect is key in establishing and growing a health coaching business and it can help if you want to host events such as retreats and workshops down the road.
6. Name your health coaching business.
Giving your health coaching business a name is another step in making things official. As for what you should name it, Russo says it’s really a personal choice. “I know many coaches that just use their name, and others, like myself, who have built a brand around their name,” she says, referring to her brand name aptly titled HIListically Speaking. “Brand identity is important. So, whatever you choose, choose something that resonates with you and matches your core values.”
7. Make money.
So what is the average holistic life coach salary? Since in many cases, you'll be launching your own business, it's really up to you how much you want to charge. Some may choose to keep their session costs low so they can cater to people who might not otherwise be able to have access to a health coach, like college students or people in lower-income communities. Others may choose to charge $150 an hour, catering to a different clientele. You have to decide for yourself what you think your services are worth (and what makes sense to support your business plan). If you are hired by a hospital or clinic, the average salary is $48,239, according to Glassdoor.
For me, being a holistic health coach offers a chance to transform someone's life. If you've ever dealt with digestive issues, anxiety, weight gain, or another health issue, you know how overwhelming it can be. Imagine helping someone with that. What could be more valuable than helping someone take control of their health?
Russo adds that how much money health coaches make also largely depends on the types of services they offer. For example, a health coach who is only doing one-to-one coaching will have a different income to another health coach who focuses on hosting workshops and retreats, booking speaking engagements, or creating online courses. And again, because each sets their own rates and prices, there is no cap on how much money you can make taking either route.
8. Continue improving your skills.
As with most career paths, learning never ends, which is why Russo encourages being open to learning new information and staying updated on what’s new in the industry. “You owe it to yourself and your clients to be informed and up to date on what's happening in the field of health and wellness,” she says. “I'm more likely to gravitate to coaches and practitioners who continue to educate themselves rather than just get a certification and that's that.”
Continually learning and improving your skill set doesn’t necessarily mean you have to stack your resume with certification after certification, but if you are interested in other topics, definitely follow that ping. If so, Russo encourages researching more about the topic and finding others who have studied it or taken a certain program on it who you can reach out to and learn more about their first-hand experience. Then, if you feel called, you can take additional training or certifications to further expand your skill set.
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