Take the story of your life–the outline that you were given at birth, the narrative that has been embellished over the years, the tales you tell yourself–and ask yourself what is working and what could be changed. What new details would you like to add? In what way does health and wellness factor into this trajectory? It may be just the moment to look, to decide what to keep and what to lost, and to begin a health-enhancing edit.
You know that now is the time to become as healthy and in control of your well-being as possible. You want to clarify and develop your own signature health style, one that suits your life as you live it and your schedule. Everyone knows that quick fixes aren’t worth it in the long run and you want to make changes that will last. So you have decided that you are ready to start thinking about working with a health coach… or you are ready not just to think about it but, instead, to actually dig in and get to work. You’re looking online to find the right coach for you. You’ve asked around but not too many of your friends know of anyone off-hand who might be the coach to help you construct a whole new and much better you. For what it’s worth, you are not even entirely sure what it is that you can expect from working with a health coach. Does this sound familiar?A lot of people know about life coaches and business coaches, but health and wellness coaches are a relatively newer phenomenon. How do you know, then, if you are working with the right coach for you? How do you know if you are contracting for the right amount of time? And what can you expect when you start working with a health coach?
Changing one’s habits is a question of either stopping, removing, and/or quitting; conversely, the change should be, concurrently, that one is starting, adding, and/or beginning. Working with a health coach is somewhat akin to undergoing therapy (though not entirely so, and an ethical coach will suggest that you speak with a therapist if your situation warrants it) in that it usually entails an hour of conversation weekly but the client must do the actual work outside of the session. It’s also like personal training but the client is, again, responsible for what happens when the hour is finished. Your work with a coach is not unduly expensive but it’s not cheap, either. What this all means is that you are best served by going into the first session with an idea in mind of what you want to accomplish. If you have a specific issue at hand, generally you can expect to resolve it in one to three months. If you have a constellation of requirements, your coaching needs can be best served by signing on for three to six months.
A specific issue can look something like this: one of my clients, let’s just call her “C” for the purpose of this anecdote, had a long-term health concern that required regular visits to her MD. Her goal with me was to become healthier general and more knowledgeable. She wanted to explore ways to alter her regimen of pharmaceutical drugs and she wanted to be able to more effectively communicate with her MD. At the time, I was almost done with my third year of my 4.5 year program at AOMA Graduate School of Integrative Medicine. Though I adhere to Chinese medicine and am less interested in integrative or Western medicine, I am trained to be able to communicate well with allopathic practitioners. This client’s condition was significant enough that she did need to be in consistent and regular contact with her MD and my role here was to support her in her established medical protocol.
What I did with her over the course of six meetings was specific and targeted to her goals. I asked her questions about her condition and gave her information about foods that could inflame it and foods that could potentially alleviate flare-ups. We agreed that she would be sure to let her doctor know the details about this conversation before she implemented any significant dietary changes. We discussed her daily schedule and her life stresses and came up with a doable self-soothing program that included yoga, meditation, and mindfulness/awareness exercises. We also talked about her specific health concern and I did some research on her behalf. The next couple sessions were dedicated to role-playing. I gave her some questions to ask her doctor and I educated her on some specific topics she could discuss at their next appointment. Because this client did not want to try traditional Chinese medicine–which is fine by me– I didn’t refer her to a licensed TCM practitioner. Instead, we stuck closely to the goals that we could achieve together, and the most important one was to build in this client the wherewithal and knowledge to be able to communicate effectively with her doctor.
It made me feel wonderful the next time we talked after her next doctor’s appointment following our role play–C told me that her doctor listened to her and engaged with her in a way that made her feel in control of the situation and, at the end of the appointment, the doctor told her that her questions were great ones. Her doctor also opined that my nutritional suggestions were valuable in this case. The client herself felt better and calmer because she knew what she could eat and do at home to make herself feel soothed and healthy. She had also learned how to ask the right questions to get the information that she needed during her doctor appointments. By the end of our cycle of six hour-long sessions, C was genuinely empowered and much more at peace with her circumstances. She also was in possession of expanded knowledge of what sort of nutritional tactics would help her AND she had a much more solid working relationship with her MD. This, we both felt, was a real win for her and we concluded the coaching relationship feeling as though it had been quite a success.
An MD is not usually going to spend an hour speaking with a patient and doctors generally aren’t professors with decades of teaching experience. Before switching careers to Chinese medicine I was a literature, culture, and languages professor and I have a solid eighteen years of teaching experience in addition to a considerable research background. I know how to listen to students and hear what is missing in their knowledge, a skill that translated very well to the clinical setting. As a health coach, I am happy to work with clients who need to learn how to articulate their concerns and communicate them to their doctors. In cases like this one, a short-term relationship that is somewhat of a consulting relation, rather than coaching, per se, is really all that a person needs.
Other clients with whom I have worked have more complicated issues. When it comes to weight loss or sugar addiction or or body dysmorphia of any sort and degree, generally a person will need to sign on for at least three but ideally six months. Especially when it comes to matters pertaining to food, each and every one of us sees things via a personal filter and within a quirky frame.
There are multiple layers to be addressed in this scenario. These include but are not limited to: thinking about and rethinking the underlying motivation and payoff for the old habits; the discovery of new, healthy habits (and how to get motivated to develop and, yes, feel paid-off for complying with them); the solidifying the routine of daily habits; and the slow but sure building of a strong sense of self and confidence within this new growth. This is a big program and it is one that takes patience and time. Usually, the construction of lasting change of this sort requires about four months of work at minimum and if the person can commit to six months, so much more the better.
The consultant, or short-term relationship is pretty straightforward. How much experience does the coach have? If they have little teaching experience, would you be best served by just asking Dr. Google, as it were? Can the coach actually do what it is that you want to learn? Can the coach tell you why and how they are qualified? A longer-term situation requires its own set of parameters in addition to the aforementioned. Any coach worth his or her salt is going to have a free consultation session and if you are going to have a longer term together, you need to know that you have a good personal rapport with each other. You should feel comfortable with the coach and confident that you are being listened to and heard when you speak. A coach should be able to outline his or her philosophy of practice and why it would be a right fit for you. Change is challenging and your coach is supposed to be your greatest source of support during the ups and downs of your growth process. If you don’t feel heard and respected, that’s a sign that this is not the right coaching relation for you.
What you can expect from a coaching relationship is a lot questions, some times, and other times, you get homework. Myself, I was a firm believer in the benefits of the Socratic method when I was a professor and I remain an adherent of this school of thought to this day. I am a certified personal trainer with solid experience as a gym employee during my first graduate program and as a training client myself (see here for my blog post on personal training). I am also a certified yoga instructor. I am a certified professional Asian bodywork therapist (AOBTA-CP). I am about to graduate and sit for my board exams so that I can begin my second career as a TCM practitioner (and I’ll continue to offer health coaching because it really is great for certain circumstances). [On edit: if you are reading this after summer 2018? I am now a licensed acupuncturist!] When I work with a health coaching client, all of the above can come into the equation. Holistic wellness can be based on regular acupuncture treatments but its overall picture really should be larger, more expansive, and wider-ranging. Your best coaching scenario is going to be with someone who can ask you the right questions and help you to find a menu of options for your overall wellbeing.
One of my longer-term clients, for instance, had weight loss as his goal but of course that was just the tip of the iceberg. Why did he eat the way he did? How could he develop a healthier sense of body image? What were the ways to feed his unmet needs that did not involve high-fat pre-prepared foods? Could we separate his here and now from his past struggles to break his sweet-eating habit? Part of this involved discussion, some of it meant that he chose to follow a strength training program that I developed for him and that he performed on his own time, and part of it meant–sad but true–that sometimes he had to work through being really frustrated and upset about not being able to eat cinnamon rolls and cake and cookies or pizzas, burgers, or fries when he was lonely, tired, or overwhelmed.
But my goal for the client, one that we shared for him, was that he would become habituated to the healthy lifestyle choices and confident in his capacity to learn and to grow beyond our time together. This I did by drawing him out of his conditioned thinking and by helping him to develop his talents in self knowledge and care. For each person, this is a different process. Socratic questioning allows a client to enjoy the thrill of exploration and discovery, and it trains you to be a discerning thinker when it comes to your health and wellbeing. Yes, I do help clients with an exercise program or a mindfulness practice, and certainly I can educate regarding nutrition. When I am a licensed acupuncturist and herbalist (this should be by the end of winter 2018), TCM will certainly be the foundation of my healthcare practice. But the best coaching I can give for anyone, in the clinic or as a coach, I think, is akin to the education I provided in my previous career–in other words, it is a process that is dynamic and geared towards fostering critical thinking, active engagement, personalized instruction, and eventual mastery of the topic at hand. For my weight loss client, this meant a solid six months of work that paid off in the end.
If you are thinking about a health coach, do check around and do go into it with some self-awareness and knowledge of your goals. Meet with the person (or if it’s long-distance, have a good conversation on the phone or via Skype) and make sure you are comfortable. Once you decide that the coach is right for you, then figure out how long it will take to achieve your goals And then get ready for some hard work, some joyful new lessons and experiences, and–if all goes well–lifelong change that makes the entire investment well worth what you expended during your time together. If ever there was a time to begin to genuinely attend to your own heath, it is now. And if you just get started, and you keep at it, you really will be glad once the lessons start to become lifestyles and the health habits become part of who you are and how you feel.
What are you waiting for?
Two Hearts Wellness is a local holistic health and wellness outfit with a passion for all things nourishing, including but not limited to: joyful living, great food, art, and literature, and–of course–traditional Chinese medicine. If you want to learn more about me, click here and do feel free to follow my blog and/or my Instagram, connect with me on Facebook, or contact me here to set up an appointment for personal training or health coaching services. If you are interested in Asian bodywork therapy, click here to book an appointment online.