Introduction to Health Coaching
If you are eager to reach your health goals and you are curious as to how you make real, quality changes to your lifestyle, then this guide is for you.
I’m really passionate about health coaching. I see how transformative it is for clients. I’ve seen them grow, explore and discover their way to health through our weekly sessions. We all know that change is difficult. Real, meaningful and long-lasting change is even harder.
But first, who am I? I am an ADAPT certified Functional Medicine Health Coach, physiotherapist, long-distance runner, and healthy food enthusiast. I’m pretty much absorbed in health for my physiotherapy and health coaching clients. Spending time thinking about health, I love, live, read and write about all things health. Specifically clean eating, mindfulness, managing chronic pain and improving sleep.
In this article, I’ll unpack:
- What is health coaching?
- Why health coaching is important
- How health coaching can help you
- How to find your perfect health coach
What is a health coach?
In short, a health coach is a change agent. Health coaches provide personalized and effective support to clients who are wanting to make critical lifestyle and behavior changes aligned with their health goals.
Here is what a health coach really does:
- Empowers you to discover your own wisdom and strength
- Helps you create your own solutions to your unique problems
- Supports you without judgment
- Holds you accountable to the goals you set
Health coaches are experts on human behavior, motivation, and health. They understand how habits form, they know how to reverse them, and they specialize in helping people overcome barriers and challenges in pursuit of their health goals.
Health coaches can be part of a multi-disciplinary care team that includes functional medicine practitioners, nutritionists, physiotherapists, and other allied health providers.
In the next few sections, I will be outlining why health coaches are important. I’ll be diving into the statistics around chronic disease in South Africa and why our current medical model isn’t working.
Health Coaching and the Burden of Chronic Disease
The South African Medical Research Council (2016) has published data that paints a grave scene for diseases of lifestyle. For example, we know that the leading cause of death in South African patients is chronic diseases.
“South Africa has the highest rate of people who are overweight and obese in sub-Saharan Africa, with more than 70% of women being overweight. Research has also proven that five out of every 10 adults in South Africa suffer from hypertension.” (SAMRC, 2018)
Research indicates the growing burdens of diabetes, chronic respiratory diseases, chronic kidney disease, cardiovascular diseases, cancers, and mental and substance use disorders in numerous countries in sub-Saharan Africa.
The map below shows the probability of dying of four of the main diseases of lifestyle: cancers, cardiovascular diseases, chronic respiratory diseases and diabetes between the ages of 30-70 years. South Africa has one of the highest percentages.
The Unit Director at the South African Medical Research Council, Professor Andre Pascal Kengne has urged society to address the risk factors that contribute to diseases of lifestyle. These diseases are steadily on the rise to become the leading cause of death now accounting for more than HIV and TB mortality.
How does Chronic Disease Relate to Lifestyle?
The four major diseases of lifestyle in South Africa share common risk factors. These are:
- Tobacco use
- Physical inactivity
- Harmful use of alcohol
- Unhealthy diet
The burden of chronic disease in South Africa revolves around these unhealthy lifestyle habits. We know that those who follow healthy behaviors see incredible results. According to a 2018 study, participants who adhered to five low-risk lifestyle choices lived longer than those who didn’t.
In this study, living a healthy lifestyle was defined as:
- Never smoking
- Engaging in at least 30 minutes of moderate to vigorous exercise every day
- Maintaining a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9 kg/m2
- Eating a quality diet
- Moderating alcohol intake
This study found that participants who followed all five of these habits gained more than a decade to their lives.
Therefore, the research says that you will see incredible health results if you start to create healthy habits. You can change your habits, and a health coach can help.
How a Health Coach Can Help Reverse Chronic Diseases
A health coach can help to reverse chronic disease. I’ve written about how this has happened in my own life. If you’d like to read my story, here it is.
If you or a family member has been diagnosed with a chronic disease, the chances are that you’ll need to face it head-on sooner rather than later. Unfortunately, conventional medicine hasn’t been shown to help much.
Conventional medicine evolved during a time when acute, infectious diseases were the leading causes of death. Other than that, most problems that brought people to the doctor were emergency cases, like appendicitis or a broken bone.
In these cases, treatment was relatively simple: the patient has contracted the flu, went to see the doctor, received an antibiotic (once they were invented), and either got better or died. One problem, one doctor, one treatment.
Today things aren’t quite so simple.
Why is Chronic Disease on the Rise?
- Our modern diet and lifestyle are out of sync with our genes and biology.
- We eat highly processed, inflammatory foods such as industrial seed oils, refined grains, and sugar. Our day to day habits such as sitting hour after hour, chronic stress, lack of movement and sleep are not how our bodies are designed to be used.
- Our current medical model is the wrong tool for the job
- Conventional medicine is designed to address acute and traumatic medical conditions—infection, fever, wounds, broken limbs. But its singular focus on house-on-fire emergencies is no match for the slow, persistent burn of chronic illness.
- Society is not geared up to offer the most effective kind of care.
- Ten minutes with a doctor is not enough time to put quality, long-lasting lifestyle changes in place. Therefore, how are we supporting long-term health? We need a healthcare structure that emphasizes and supports the interventions that will have the biggest impact on preventing—and reversing—chronic disease.
My Certification as a health coach
I am an ADAPT Certified Functional Health Coach, trained at the Kresser Institute. I am also a practicing physiotherapist. These two qualifications have given me a comprehensive knowledge of the human body and medical science, functional health and behaviour change.
A comprehensive functional health coach will be skilled include all of the following areas:
- Positive psychology
- Motivational interviewing
- Habit formation and reversal
- Functional medicine
- Ancestral health
The ADAPT Health Coach Training Program (HCTP) is a thorough, 12-month certification program that was created by Chris Kresser, a New York Times best-selling author and one of the most respected Functional Medicine clinicians in the world.
Functional Medicine in Health Coaching
Functional medicine is health in it’s truest form. It’s a model of health care that is vastly different from conventional medicine. It focuses on the prevention and treatment of chronic disease, to achieve overall health and wellness. That sounds quite theoretical, but what does it mean practically?
What is functional medicine, practically?
Imagine you are driving to work one day and as you get out of your car, you notice your front tyre is a bit low. You take it to the petrol station and pump it up with air. It looks good. A few days later, again, the tyre is low. In the conventional medicine route, you mostly focus on pumping up the tyre. But wouldn’t it be better to prevent the leak in the first place, and then fix it completely if a leak does spring up? This is what functional medicine is about.
Metaphor aside, functional medicine is a patient-centered and tailored model that addresses the underlying cause of disease. Below is a table that highlights the differences between conventional and functional medicine.
What areas can an ADAPT Certified Functional Health Coach help with?
An A-CFHC can help with behaviour change in the following areas:
- Diabetes and Other Blood Sugar Disorders – such as PCOS, gestational diabetes
- Thyroid Disorders: hyperthyroid and hypothyroid
- Autoimmune Disorders: rheumatoid arthritis, ankylosing spondylitis, etc
- HPA Axis Dysregulation, otherwise known as “adrenal fatigue”
- High Cholesterol and Heart Disease
- IBS (SIBO) and other Digestive disorders
- Histamine Intolerance
- Skin Conditions
- Stress Management
- High Blood Pressure
- Anxiety, Depression, and Cognitive Disorders
- Physical Activity – Undertraining
- Pregnancy, Fertility, and Breastfeeding
The Role of Nutrition in Health and Wellness Coaching
One of the concepts of the future of medicine is that it embraces an evolutionary or ancestral perspective of health. For thousands of generations, humans ate primarily meat and fish, wild fruits and vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some starchy plants.
Our modern-day diet is low in nutrient density. We’ve relied on a limited set of processed grains such as wheat, rice, and corn. Our modern diet is also lower in nutrient-dense animal products such as organ meats. Therefore vitamin shortages have become common, along with the health problems associated with them.
We have seen a profound imbalance between our genetic heritage and the modern environment that we live in today. It is responsible for the epidemic of modern chronic disease. A health coach focuses on changing eating behaviours. They are trained in habit formation and reversal and can facilitate the change process. For many people, change is difficult. A health coach challenges you, explores motivation, helps you to overcome barriers, increase your support and confidence in making a significant change to your diet and your health.
Health Coaches vs. Nutritionists, Dietitians, Personal Trainers, and Doctors
Health coaches are not advisors, mentors, friends, counselors, or diagnosticians—they’re health behavior change specialists. They support people in discovering their own strategies and motivations for change, overcoming obstacles, and implementing protocols that have either been prescribed by a clinician or nutritionist/dietitian or that the client has chosen to implement on their own. Here are some of the professions that are similar to health coaching and how health coaches are different.
Nutritionists, dietitians, physiotherapists, and doctors are specifically trained to diagnose, treat, or prescribe individualized treatment plans for their patients and clients based on their training. Health coaches do not typically have this training, but they don’t need it to be successful in supporting behavior change, which is their primary purpose and role.
Health coaching and behaviour change
Picture health coaching sitting in the middle of the intersection of health information and behaviour change. Health coaches have a vast knowledge of diet, lifestyle, and nutrition. They understand how these impact on wellness – how each of these uniquely affect the body and mind. This helps them to understand and empathize with the health problems that clients face.
Not only do health coaches understand the intricacies of health, but they have the tools and skills to help clients build new habits and make quality, lasting changes. This is what makes health coaches unique as healthcare professionals -they are not just a source of information but they are a catalyst for change.
What happens in a Health Coaching Session?
Partnering with a health coach means that you’re partnering with someone who asks powerful questions, actively listens, helps you to strategize to reach your goals.
A health coaching session happens in person or online; giving you flexibility within your busy life.
Wellness vision and goal setting
In your first official session, your coach will take you through a wellness vision. A wellness vision session is an exploratory process of your ideals, best experiences, core values, and strengths. A compelling vision identifies what people want rather than what they don’t want.
You’ll be asked, “what do you see as the best version of yourself?” Or “how do you want to be in 6 months from now?”
Based on this, together you will form long term (3-6 months) and short term (weekly) goals over the course of working together. You’ll work with a coach for a minimum of three months, ideally six months, so that long-lasting, quality changes are made.
At the beginning of each session, you’ll be asked what you’d like to focus on for that session. Together, you’ll come up with a specific agenda that will meet your intentions for the session.
In a wellness vision and goal setting session, a health coach will:
- Facilitate agenda setting
- Ask powerful questions
- Give perspective
- Educate if asked for information
- Harness the support unique to your situation
- Strategize with you to come up with a plan
- Ask how you’d like to be held accountable
Health coaching works with tangible outcomes. Both you and your coach are looking for real, concrete changes in your health. Over the coaching relationship, these tangible outcomes will be monitored and reflected upon.
What are some tangible outcomes health coaches help you reach?
These outcomes are completely up to you, but here are a few examples of the possibly outcomes from health coaching:
- Daily meditation practice to manage stress, enhance self-acceptance, and focus
- A low carb, healthy fats diet that’s sustainable and includes as much range as possible.
- A regular exercise routine, averaging 10,000 steps/day
- Reduce technology screen time at night before bed and get 7-9 hours of sleep
- Safely and sustainably lose 5-7kg over a three month period
Find a Health Coach in South Africa Now
To find the best fit for you I’d suggest reaching out to family or friends who have experienced health coaching. Alternatively, you could look for an online recommendation. Remember to take a look and ask for any coach’s credentials.