Inside the Growing Field of Wellness Careers—and How to Tell What’s Legit

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Christina Miller was at home listening to a podcast about how different women were using their passions to help others. "There was one woman I really connected with," Miller says. "She was a single mom and said she used her last bit of money on training to be a life coach, and now she had this thriving business." In the past, Miller had aspired to become a psychologist, but four kids later, more schooling didn't seem practical. Could life coaching be for her?

"I called the woman who was on the podcast, who had her own coaching program, and she was very persistent about me enrolling in her program. She wouldn't let me off the phone until I put down some money," Miller says. It was a lengthy phone call, with the coach talking about God, and purpose, and how this was something Miller was "meant to do." Miller had just had her fourth child and the $2,600 cost of the two-day life coaching program was not something she could really afford. But she still ended up charging it to her credit card before hanging up the phone.

The $2,600 cost of the two-day life coaching program was not something she could really afford. But she still ended up putting it on her credit card.

You might guess how the story ends. Miller's two-day program—conducted entirely by phone—didn't turn out to be the magical start of a new career she hoped it might be. "I realized later it was a scam," she says, adding that the life coach started being snippy and mean to her when Miller wouldn't sign up for her $700 a month online group seminars.

Miller's is hardly the only horror story. A lot of certifications—in the wellness world and beyond—are legitimate, but in many cases, they lack the credentialing that more science-backed job titles have. Real, powerful work is being done by shamans, reiki masters, health coaches, and yes, life coaches. But how do you spot a fraud among the pros and what are the marks of a legitimate training program?

Keep reading to learn more about professions within the wellness world—and how to find a training program worth the investment.

healing careers
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Regulations are still catching up to the rise of wellness careers

For many people, following a traditional career path means going to college, declaring a major, graduating with a degree in that field, and then getting to work. But what does it look like if, while your friends are drawn to medicine or public relations, you feel called to become a shaman?

When fashion stylist Colleen McCann decided to become a shaman, she went through more than 300 hours of training, learning how to read energy, channel the spirit world (and how to help someone cross from one world to the next), and hospice care. She also learned how to deal with clients. "Whether you're a shaman, reiki healer, or health coach, one big part of [the job] is having good bedside manner, which isn't something everyone knows intuitively," she says. "Often, you have to learn that."

"There are literally people who click on a website and understand themselves to be reiki masters." —Pamela Miles, reiki master

While it's beautiful that we live in a world where you can grow up to become a reiki healer or shaman, training certifications haven't caught up with the growing trend. Shamanism and reiki don't currently have any set regulations or certification programs. "There is not even an 'industry-wide' agreement on what reiki practice is," says Pamela Miles, who has been a reiki master for over 30 years and is the author of Reiki: A Comprehensive Guide. "There are literally people who click on a website and understand themselves to be reiki masters. That's not a problem if they’re practicing at home on themselves, family, and friends. But if they’re setting themselves up as experts—practicing and guiding other people—there are lots of problems that come into play because they’ve not been trained."

So how can you find someone you know is legit? McCann says you have to do your research—the same way you would Google top university listings—and find out which teaching style is best for you. "Read the bios to find out who's running the school and how long they've been training," she says. Also, ask around: "It's like wanting to go to your best friend's gynecologist, someone you trust with your innermost workings. Referral is huge."

Both pieces of advice apply to reiki, too. "Ask how long she has been studying reiki professionally, what her training was, and if she practices reiki daily on herself," Miles says. "A reputable reiki master has taken three different trainings, which have taken a good amount of time." In other words: You probably want to steer clear of someone who became a reiki practitioner after a weekend crash course.

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Online versus IRL health coaching and life coaching

Other growing careers, like health coaching and life coaching, are a bit further along in the codification process. Many top universities are now offering certification programs in these fields. "There has been significant growth in health coaching over the past five years due to the tremendous emphasis on prevention and treatment of chronic disease," says Linda Smith, the director of educational programs at Duke Integrative Medicine at Duke University.

The Duke program doesn't count towards undergraduate credit, and you can't choose it as your major. But Smith emphasizes that health coaching is not only a legitimate career, it serves a different purpose than nutritionists, dietitians, and physicians. "If you want to know what an anti-inflammatory diet is, you might want to see a nutritionist. But most people know on a surface level what healthy habits are. They just need help implementing them into their life," she says. "A health coach can help someone push through barriers that are hurting their overall well-being."

Life coaching programs are being offered at universities, too: New York University, for instance, has a two-year "diploma in coaching" program. But in both of these fields, online programs are a more popular route. Does that make them less legit?

Online programs are the most popular route to coaching certifications. Does that make them less legit?

On the health coaching front, Smith says no—as long as the program is approved by the International Consortium of Health and Wellness Coaches, which is working with the National Board of Medical Examiners to create the first credentialing exam for health coaches. The ICHWC held its first official exam this fall, and health coaches who pass will be added to a registry, soon available on its site.

Some online programs are recognized by the Department of Education, such as the Institute of Integrative Nutrition. "At the end of the year-long certification program, you can put the certificate toward bachelor's and master's programs at over 1,500 colleges and universities," says Rebecca Florczyk, an admissions representative at IIN.

For life coaching, the International Coach Federation is garnering a rep as the go-to accreditation approval source. "It's the largest governing body and they have done a lot to create a very specific process for schools and programs to get accredited," says Walks of Life: Professional Life Coaching For All author Jill Fratto. While Fratto says different coaching schools will focus on different things—career coaching versus coaching for relationships, for example—the accreditation process requires specific coursework, a minimum of 125 hours of teacher-student contact, and six observed student coaching sessions.

Fratto compares the increased rigor placed on coaching programs to another popular wellness field: "It's sort of like how in the '70s, anyone could call themselves a massage therapist, but now you wouldn't even consider going to someone who isn't licensed," she says.

wellness experts red flags
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Red flags to look out for

Regardless of the wellness profession you're most interested in, there are some clear signs that a training program or "expert" is more interested in money than healing. One red flag that every person interviewed for this article says to watch out for are weekend-long courses that promise you will know everything you need to by the end of the two days.

Nicole Jackson's interest in spiritual practices such as yoga and meditation inspired her to take one such quickie reiki training program. "I really liked the teacher as a person, but I knew very little about reiki going into it and the course taught everything from psychic readings to heart chakras and energy clearing," Jackson says. "After the course was over, [the instructor] told me I should become a reiki master, which felt off to me since I still couldn't even explain what reiki was to my family and friends." Almost always, crash courses are not an effective way to become an expert in anything.

Another red flag: You're prompted to put money down right away. The experts agree that you should be allowed to take your time with your decision to become a healer—or to see one.

Find out why woo-woo wellness is going mainstream and how holistic healthcare is expanding its reach.

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