Many people want to improve their health, and they may take strides toward achieving health goals, yet they may encounter setbacks that prove difficult to overcome. If you feel inspired to pursue a career that would enable you to empower others to achieve better health, you might consider working toward a health coaching career. What is health coaching? This in-depth career guide explains and offers a look at a typical career pathway.
In This Article:
- What Does a Health Coach Do?
- What Is Health and Wellness Coaching?
- Which Techniques Do Health Coaching Professionals Use in Coaching Sessions?
- How To Become a Health Coach
What Does a Health Coach Do?
Unless you happen to be a mechanic, you probably take your car to a repair shop when it breaks down. If you’re a professional writer, you’ll send your work to an editor prior to publication. It seems like common sense for people to seek the services of a professional when needed, so why not seek the help of a professional health coach in order to achieve your health goals?
A health coach is someone who forms a collaborative, working relationship with a client, helping that individual set and achieve health goals. Health coaches can help their clients identify obstacles to success and develop strategies to overcome those obstacles. They provide motivation and encouragement along with practical guidance and support.
Health coaches can help clients with virtually any health goals, but the most common ones include the following:
- Weight loss
- Smoking cessation
- Nutrition and medication adherence
- Stress management
- Goal setting
These areas of health often overlap. For instance, a person who is struggling to overcome insomnia may be more likely to eat lots of sugary snacks. In other words, some clients may have more than one major health goal.1
People may also seek the services of a health coach after being diagnosed with a serious or chronic health problem. They may decide they need to take better care of themselves after suffering a heart attack, for example, or being diagnosed with diabetes.
It’s important to note that health coaches are not necessarily licensed medical professionals (although they can be). In fact, the health coaching profession is largely unregulated. Unless a health coach also happens to be a licensed doctor or nurse, they cannot provide clinical interventions, although they may still provide non-clinical support to individuals with diagnosed health conditions.
What Is Health and Wellness Coaching?
The terms “health coaching” and “wellness coaching” are often used interchangeably, along with “health and wellness coaching.” Although there is no universally accepted industry standard, some organizations do recognize subtle differences between health and wellness coaching.
The National Society of Health Coaches (NSHC), for instance, states that health coaching is for those who want to improve their health, whereas wellness coaching is for clients who are already healthy and wish to maintain their health status.2 Others may define wellness coaching as referring predominantly to mental and emotional health, whereas health coaching encompasses physical health. It’s possible that a universally accepted definition may emerge in the future, particularly if the health coaching field becomes subject to greater oversight.
Which Techniques Do Health Coaching Professionals Use in Coaching Sessions?
Health coaching professionals can use a variety of evidence-based strategies and techniques to help their clients achieve better health. One of those techniques is motivational interviewing. Motivational interviewing is intended to demonstrate to clients that they truly desire positive change, which can be a more effective motivator than an externally imposed goal.
For instance, a doctor informing a patient that they ought to quit smoking for health reasons is certainly accurate, but not necessarily motivating. With motivational interviewing, a health coach may ask the patient to envision how their life might change for the better after quitting smoking. This technique not only helps a patient develop a firmer motivation for positive change, but also empowers the patient to be an active participant in the program.
Another powerful health coaching technique involves sharing stories of incredible transformation. Without revealing any personal or identifying information, a health coach might discuss how other clients were able to achieve significant milestones toward better health. This can help the client realize that if others can accomplish their health goals, then so can they.
It’s also important for a health coach to validate their clients’ emotions. Health coaching is a deeply personal journey, and clients may share some of their most closely held concerns during sessions. An effective health coach should validate the client’s emotions, fears and concerns, and always maintain a safe, non-judgmental environment.
An effective health coach provides motivation and inspiration to help clients progress through their journey. An effective health coach must also provide practical guidance, such as tips for incorporating more vegetables into one’s diet or reducing one’s sugar intake.
How To Become a Health Coach
If the answer to the question, “What is health coaching?” appeals to you, then it’s time to take a look at one possible career pathway. If you’re still in high school, you may wish to schedule a meeting with your guidance counselor to discuss your career goals. Your guidance counselor may be able to add some courses to your schedule that can help you prepare for your future.
Classes in health, human development and psychology will be helpful for you. If you’re limited in the number of courses you can add, it may be best to prioritize a psychology class, because health coaches often act as de facto counselors by motivating and encouraging their clients. A communications class is another valuable addition to your schedule.
In addition to your coursework, look for opportunities to learn and make professional connections outside the classroom. You might explore volunteer opportunities, internships and part-time jobs at local health clinics, hospitals and related facilities.
As your high school graduation date approaches, it’s time to think about your post-secondary education. Because the health coaching field is largely unregulated, there is no single credential that all health coaches must acquire, and there is no universal career pathway.
In general, however, to be a credible and authoritative professional in this field, it’s helpful to have a bachelor’s degree in a related field, such as sports psychology. It’s also strongly recommended that aspiring health coaches acquire a professional certification from a reputable health coaching organization.
Some employers of health coaches may require a professional certification. Others may express a strong preference for it. Additionally, if you decide to establish your own health coaching business, you’re likely to find that some clients will intentionally seek out health coaches who are certified.
Earn Your Undergraduate Sports Psychology Degree
Some health coaches go to medical school and become doctors, or complete a nursing program and acquire nursing licensure. They then complete an additional certification course to become a health coach. However, not all health coaches have such time-intensive qualifications, and it’s certainly not necessary to go through medical training in order to become a health coach.
Although a degree in nutrition or exercise science could be a good choice, it’s also possible these may be somewhat limiting. For instance, a client might see that a health coach comes from a nutrition background and assume that the coach doesn’t work with clients on smoking cessation or physical activity goals.
Instead, a more broadly applicable choice is a psychology degree, such as a Bachelor of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Performance and Sports Psychology. A sports psychology degree will prepare you to understand how human thought patterns and beliefs influence behaviors, and how to use that knowledge to motivate and guide clients toward adopting healthier lifestyle habits.
You may be required to complete a professional capstone course during your senior year. A capstone course is your opportunity to demonstrate everything that you’ve learned to that point as you develop a major research project.
Pursue Health Coaching Certification
After you graduate with your sports psychology degree, you may wish to enroll in a certification course on a full-time basis. An alternative option is to apply for a part-time or full-time internship in the field while simultaneously working through your certification curriculum.
Conduct your due diligence before choosing a certification program. There are many choices out there, and some are more reputable than others. One strategy for choosing a reputable certification program is to search through job ads for health coaches and see which certifications employers tend to prefer.
Some examples of reputable health coaching certification programs and the professional organizations that offer them are as follows:
- National Society of Health Coaches – Health Coach Certification (Available only for those with another health-related license or certification)
- The American Council on Exercise (ACE) – ACE Health Coach Certification (Accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies – NCCA)
- Dr. Sears Wellness Institute – Certified Health Coach and Master Certified Health Coach
- Duke Integrative Medicine – Duke Health & Well-Being Coach Training (DHWCT) (Graduates may be eligible to take the certifying exam to become National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coaches)
- Well coaches School of Coaching – Certified Wellness Coach (Graduates may be eligible to take the certifying exam to become National Board Certified Health & Wellness Coaches)
The length of these certification programs will vary. Many programs can be completed entirely online, and others also offer hybrid in-person and online training modules.
Are Health Coaching Professionals in High Demand?
In the U.S., the agency tasked with tracking employment data and predicting future employment trends is the U.S. Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS). Although the BLS does not track data for health coaches, it does offer information on health education specialists, which is a closely related career.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Outlook Handbook estimates job growth for health education specialists and community health workers to increase by about 13% from 2019 to 2029 — faster than the average for all professions — accounting for an estimated increase of 17,000 jobs in the field.3
Do note that a health coach is not the same as a health education specialist. However, because these careers are closely related, the job growth rate for the latter may offer insights as to the demand for the former.
It’s not yet completely clear what long-term effects the COVID-19 pandemic may have on the population’s health-seeking behaviors and, consequently, the demand for health coaches. According to the American Psychological Association (APA), 61% of study participants reported undesirable weight changes, 23% reported consuming more alcohol and 48% of parents reported higher levels of stress during the pandemic.4 It is possible — but not yet certain — that undesirable health changes acquired during the pandemic may lead to an increased demand for health coaching services.
If you aspire to make it your life’s work to help others achieve their health and wellness goals, you’re invited to apply to Grand Canyon University (GCU), where students fuse passion with purpose. The Bachelor of Science in Psychology with an Emphasis in Performance and Sports Psychology degree is an ideal choice for health-minded individuals who wish to empower others to reach their full potential.
1 Science, Why skimping on sleep makes your brain crave sweets in December 2022.
2 National Society of Health Coaches, Frequently Asked Questions in December 2022.
3 COVID-19 has adversely affected the global economy and data from 2020 may be atypical compared to prior years. The pandemic may impact the predicted future workforce outcomes indicated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics as well. Accordingly, data shown is based on 2019, which can be found here: U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Health Education Specialists and Community Health Workers.
4 American Psychological Association, One year later, a new wave of pandemic health concerns in December 2022.
Approved by the assistant dean of behavioral health of the College of Humanities and Social Sciences on Feb. 22, 2023.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of Grand Canyon University. Any sources cited were accurate as of the publish date.