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At first, the title “wellness coach” sounds like a vague, self-proclaimed expertise that only Instagram influencers or Bachelor contestantsuse 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.
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.”
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.
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.
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