Health coaches fill a void by offering more intensive, client-centered care. They’re masters at helping patients break bad habits and form new, healthy behaviors.
If you’re looking to make a major change to your diet, exercise routine, or lifestyle, working with a health coach can help you set realistic goals and take the steps necessary to meet them. Keep reading to find out how health coaching can help you fight chronic disease—or prevent it from developing in the first place.
Why You Should Care about Chronic Disease Right Now
Now, more than ever, we need help stopping the spread of chronic illness. As I discuss in my book Unconventional Medicine, this problem has become an epidemic, and it’s only getting worse.
In the United States, seven out of every 10 deaths happen due to chronic disease. (1) Six in 10 Americans are currently suffering from a chronic condition; four in 10 have several chronic illnesses. (2)
Unfortunately, the epidemic isn’t just limited to adults. One quarter of all American children have a chronic disease. (3) By 2030, the cost of treating obesity, diabetes, autoimmune disorders, cardiovascular disease, and other chronic illnesses is projected to reach $47 trillion. (4)
Looking to lose weight? Improve your diet? Manage your stress? A health coach can help you achieve these goals—and more. Read this article to learn more about how working with a health coach can make difficult changes easier and supercharge your chances for success.
The good news is, it doesn’t have to be this way. We all have the ability to fight chronic disease and reverse serious illnesses—and health coaches can help.
Can You Prevent and Reverse Chronic Disease?
As I’ve said before, your genes aren’t your destiny. According to the CDC, genetics are only responsible for about 15 percent of diseases. (5) The rest are determined by external factors, like our:
- Parents’ health at the time of conception
- Social interactions and relationships
- Lifestyle choices and daily habits
In fact, 85 percent of chronic diseases can be attributed to factors other than genetics. (6) Unmitigated stress alone has the power to negatively impact every part of your health, which is why learning to manage it is so essential.
The Top Five Habits for Preventing Chronic Disease
According to the CDC, the five most important behaviors to prevent chronic illness are: (7)
- Not smoking
- Exercising regularly
- Drinking moderately—or not at all
- Maintaining a healthy body weight
- Getting more sleep
And, as of 2013, only 6.3 percent of Americans follow all five of these habits. That could explain why we’re seeing such a meteoric rise in chronic illnesses.
Those who do 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. (8) In fact, the projected life expectancy for men at age 50 was 12.2 years longer for participants who followed all five habits than it was for those who didn’t follow any. For women, that number jumped to 14 years.
In this case, researchers defined healthy living 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
While study participants who followed all five of these habits gained more than a decade to their lives, researchers noted that, for the people who didn’t follow any of these habits, the rate of all-cause mortality jumped almost 61 percent.
You Can Change Your Habits—and a Health Coach Can Help
So now that you know what the stakes are, it’s time to start changing your lifestyle. But, as you might guess, shifting long-held habits isn’t easy.
Not to worry. This is where a health coach can shine.
Here’s How a Health Coach Helped One Man Lose Weight, Fix His Blood Sugar, and Drop Seven of Eight Prescriptions
In my clinical work, I’ve seen health coaches inspire people, help them make changes, and improve their lives.
I watched one patient, Ryan, overcome multiple health problems with the assistance of a coach, as well as the rest of our collaborative care team. He started out 40 pounds overweight, pre-diabetic, asthmatic, and suffering from insomnia and sleep apnea. He was experiencing atopic dermatitis—complete with itchy, painful rashes—and ulcerative colitis. When he first walked through our doors, he was taking eight different medications regularly and turning to an inhaler and pain medicine when needed.
Ryan needed help.
Together, we got Ryan to follow a nutrient-dense, whole-foods diet and encouraged him to embrace stress management techniques. As you can imagine, these were big changes for him. He worked closely with our health coach to break each new step down into a manageable chunk he could handle. He got the chance to talk in-depth about the issues he faced and got clear advice on how to make effective, lasting lifestyle changes.
In just three months, Ryan lost 30 pounds, fixed his blood sugar levels, dropped seven of the eight medications he was taking, and left his inhaler and pain medicine behind. Working with a health coach truly helped him get better, and I’m convinced it can work for you, too.
A Health Coach Can Help You with Weight Loss
Multiple studies have shown that habit-based coaching leads to better results with weight loss.
In one study, participants who underwent habit-based weight-loss interventions showed more “clinically important” weight loss over their counterparts. (9) They also maintained that weight loss for up to 12 months afterward. Researchers also noted some other positive outcomes, like:
- More fruit and vegetable consumption
- More exercise
- Better well-being
- Less depression and anxiety
- Better habit strength
- More openness to change
In another study, researchers studied 271 obese individuals over the course of two years. (10) They found that the people who participated in a coaching program focused on weight loss saw a 7 percent weight loss on average after 12 months. After 24 months, that number dropped only slightly. Health coaching clients were more likely to have lost at least 5 percent of their initial body weight up to 24 months after completing the program.
Do You Have Diabetes? A Health Coach Might Be Able to Help You Reverse It
As you know, obesity and diabetes go hand-in-hand. In fact, one of the key steps to preventing or reversing type 2 diabetes is to change your diet. Coaches are in a perfect position to help encourage the diet and lifestyle changes necessary to reverse this condition.
In one study, researchers looked at the impact coaching sessions had on diabetic patients in a lower-socioeconomic status community. (11) They focused on the six-month program’s effectiveness at encouraging manageable change—without becoming prohibitively expensive for patients.
Their results are encouraging. They found that while both groups were able to reduce their blood sugar levels, the participants who met with a coach saw quicker results after just three months. Patients who went through the coaching program also showed significant weight loss and major decreases in waist circumference. Both groups reported:
- Better moods
- More satisfaction with their lives
- Higher quality of life
Improving Your Heart Health with the Help of a Health Coach
Researchers in one study decided to test whether dietitians and nurses could coach patients with coronary heart disease to lower their total cholesterol and reduce other cardiovascular risk factors. (12) The dietitians and nurses in the programs were not allowed to prescribe medication. Instead, they coached patients on:
- Their specific cardiovascular risks
- What their health targets should be
- How to pursue their personal targets and reduce their risks
After six months, researchers found that the change in total cholesterol levels for participants of the coaching program was significantly greater than the study’s other patients. Coaching program participants saw a change in total cholesterol of 21 mg/dL; for the study’s other participants, that number dropped to just 7 mg/dL.
As I’ve talked about on my blog, statins aren’t always effective. Prescribing drugs first instead of encouraging diet and lifestyle changes is a particularly insidious effect of the diet–heart myth that I see conventional medical practitioners turn to frequently. It’s encouraging to see data support a statin-free approach to improving heart health and lowering cardiovascular risks.
They Can Boost Your Overall Quality of Life
Aside from treating specific health problems, coaching can help you improve your general well-being. In one study, researchers implemented a self-management program for nursing home residents. (13) After an eight-week program consisting of group and individual coaching sessions, residents showed:
- Less health distress
- Less depression
- Better quality of life
- Improved self-efficacy, or the belief that they were able to achieve their goals
Regardless of whether you have a chronic disease, or you just know it’s time to make some hard adjustments to your day-to-day life, the hands-on, patient-focused approach a coach will take can help you make changes that stick.
Coaches Are Your Key to Making Long-Term Changes
As I mentioned in several of the studies above, the changes that patients make when they’re working with a health coach tend to last. In one study, researchers found that patients who underwent health coaching were better able to control their diabetes, hypertension, and hyperlipidemia up to one year after the fact. (14) During the course of the study, coaches:
- Answered questions and went over medication information prior to doctor appointments
- Brought patients to their clinic visits and stayed with them during exams
- Reviewed care plans after appointments
- Answered questions over the phone between doctor appointments
It’s precisely that hands-on approach that makes coaching so effective.
They’re Going Mainstream
As more studies reveal that health coaches are effective at delivering treatment, more big-name medical facilities are taking notice. Patients at Iora Health and the Cleveland Clinic can work directly with coaches as part of their treatment. Prestigious medical institutions like Duke Integrative Medicine and the Mayo Clinic now have training programs for health coaches.
My own program, the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, has certified close to 600 ADAPT Certified Functional Health Coaches who are expanding their knowledge and skills into new, fulfilling careers. We’ve trained and certified coaches, so they can start helping patients like you commit to big changes.
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What Health Coaches Do
Coaches are highly trained experts on human behavior, motivation, and health, and they embrace a variety of theoretical models to help guide their clients through change. In the ADAPT Health Coach Training Program, for example, students learn about the Transtheoretical Model, which includes the Stages of Change. This model recognizes that people move through a series of stages when modifying behavior, and that coaching them successfully requires a different approach at each stage.
Our coaches also embrace positive psychology and character strengths. That means they focus their attention on what each client does well and build on those strengths. A coach who has been trained in positive psychology can help you imagine what success would look like—and then help you set the goals you need to get there. In most cases, this is a far more effective approach than trying to fix what is broken or not working well, which is the goal of many traditional methods of behavior change.
Health coaches are also skilled at supporting their clients when change is difficult. They use methods like Motivational Interviewing, which helps people to discover their own motivation and strategies for change and overcome ambivalence.
Coaches don’t follow the typical “expert” model that’s so common in healthcare. Instead of issuing a diagnosis, your coach will work closely with you to:
- Understand your current condition
- Help flesh out exactly what you want to get out of the coaching interaction
- Ask powerful questions to help you gain insights into how you can achieve change
- Assist in the creation of goals that are doable
- Hold you accountable
Finally, our health coaches are trained extensively in habit formation and reversal. This is crucial, since research shows that most of the actions we take each day are not conscious—they’re habitual. Using strategies like “shrinking the change” and mapping out the “habit loop,” coaches give you the tools you need to break bad habits and build healthy behaviors.
Together with Functional Medicine practitioners, nutritionists, and other allied health providers, coaches are an essential part of the collaborative medicine model.
The Role a Coach Can Play in Your Life
The top focus for any coach is you, the client. They’re equipped to answer your specific needs when asked, help you through your personal rough spots, and provide whatever encouragement will help you reach the next step in your wellness journey. Many coaches offer individual and group sessions, so you can choose a format that best works for you and your budget.
They Help You Take the Steps Your Clinician Orders
Coaches are an essential part of implementing the treatment plan your doctor or healthcare practitioner gives you. While practitioners excel at ordering testing, diagnosing, and prescribing treatment, they often don’t have enough time to fully explain every detail to each patient. And, as doctor appointments get shorter and shorter—the average time you spend in front of a practitioner is between 10 and 12 minutes—it becomes even less likely that you’ll get anything more than general instructions after an exam. (15)
A health coach can take the time to explain your test results to you, or they can come up with concrete, actionable steps you can take to implement your doctor’s directions. If your doctor tells you it’s time to lose weight, your health coach can support you in creating a diet plan and exercise regime to help you succeed.
They’re Accessible to You
Coaches are also available for regular check-ins. If you’re having trouble sticking to a change or you’re experiencing some unexpected side effects, you don’t have to wait another two or three months to see your doctor. You can speak to your coach or follow up during your regular appointment.
You can also expect your coaching appointment to last longer than 10 to 12 minutes and, in most cases, each visit costs a fraction of what a trip to the doctor’s office would cost—especially if you factor in the astronomical cost of treating chronic illness over a lifetime.
They’re Necessary for All of Us
Coaches need to be a part of the national healthcare landscape, but not just because of the specialized services they’re able to offer. By 2025, we’ll be facing a projected shortage of 52,000 primary care physicians. (16) Problems like long wait times, infrequent appointments, and short office exams will all get worse as our population ages. I predict that coaches will play an even larger role in the years to come.
Do You Need a Coach?
If you currently have a chronic disease and you need help implementing the lifestyle changes your doctor prescribed, you should consider working with a health coach. As I mentioned, coaches can have a huge impact on patients looking to reverse obesity, diabetes, or heart disease. Patients with irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth (SIBO), and other gastrointestinal problems could also find success by working with a coach.
Coaches are also a great resource for people who want to prevent an illness before it becomes a major problem. This could apply to people who:
- Are overweight and/or have metabolic issues like pre-diabetes and mild hypertension
- Have early signs of cognitive decline
- Are having trouble sleeping or managing stress
You don’t need to wait until a chronic illness develops to seek the help of a coach. If you’re contemplating any change and you’re unsure of where to start, a coach can help. Whether you’re beginning an exercise program, trying to leave behind the Standard American Diet, or thinking of taking up meditation, a health coach can help you reach your goals.
What to Expect When You Start Working with a Health Coach
When it’s time for your first appointment, I recommend you show up ready to share. Coaches work by building relationships with their clients. You’ll sit down one-on-one and engage in a frank discussion about your health, and your coach will ask some personal questions. The more honest your answers are, the better they’ll be able to help you, so don’t hold back.
Remember to take the opportunity to get to know the person across from you. It’s important that you feel comfortable talking about anything, and you should feel a rapport develop during your conversation. Keep an eye out for someone who knows when to listen, and when—and how—to step in with guidance.
And, of course, I recommend finding someone with a background in Functional Medicine and ancestral health. Someone who’s focused on these ideas will give you the best chance of reversing your chronic disease and improving your health.
The health coaches at the California Center for Functional Medicine have that background. Together with our practitioners, nutritionists, and other team members, our coaches are part of a collaborative team dedicated to providing you with the support and tools you need to reclaim your health from chronic illness. Find out more about our virtual health transformation practice.
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Great article. Thanks. Can someone work with the health coaches at your clinic without seeing the doctor? I’d love to buy some health coaching for my parents. They need this much more than any labs, testing, or medical expertise. They need motivational expertise!