“Health coach,” can be a confusing title. Do they write prescriptions? Do they help you do push-ups? Do they supervise Little League practice? No. Health coaching is a very specialized type of coaching. To understand how health coaching differs from other wellness fields, let’s first find out exactly what it is.
What is a Health Coach?
Unlike medical professionals who prescribe and diagnose, health coaches help you discover what you want to change and use goal-setting to help you get there. Health coaches are well-versed in how habits form and how to eliminate them. They can assist with things such as sleep, time management, weight loss, and stress reduction. Health coaches don’t address symptoms. Instead, they try to pinpoint the root of a health issue.
Health coaches typically work in:
- Medical offices
- Corporate wellness programs
- Community centers
- Private practice
There are a variety of specialized disciplines that health coaches can pursue such as:
- RN health coach – A registered nurse (RN) health coach is a nurse who has a mind-body approach to health and wellness. A nurse must be certified as an RN health coach by demonstrating specific abilities required by the American Holistic Nurses Credentialing Corporation.
- Holistic health coach – A holistic health coach looks at each individual’s body as a whole. They don’t offer across-the-board regimens because they understand that what works for one person may actually be harmful to another.
- Paleo health coach – This type of coaching is based upon the healthy Paleolithic-era lifestyle, which encompassed moving often, eating genuine food and getting adequate rest.
- Functional medicine health coach – A functional medicine health coach addresses causes of diseases, rather than symptoms, including stress and exposure to toxins.
Although specific education isn’t mandatory, health coaches have more credibility when they complete a certification program and get certified.
Health coaches are often lumped in with fitness coaches, life coaches, and even therapists, but they’re all actually very different. Read on to understand what makes each of these professions unique…
What is the Difference Between Health Coaching and Other Health-Related Professions?
Nutritionists are experts in the field of food and nutrition. Taking a holistic view of a person’s dietary habits, lifestyle, and overall health, nutritionists help clients choose good foods, plan menus, and learn about healthy eating habits.
A nutritionist may target areas such as weight loss, hormonal or nutritional balance, food allergies or digestion. They can also help clients identify and change dietary habits that could trigger future health problems.
These professionals develop meals plans and work in very generalized ways with people who have chronic illnesses. For instance, a nutritionist may create a diet with reduced fat, sodium and sugar to aid a client with high blood pressure.
Nutritionists don’t diagnose or treat medical conditions. Their sole focus is general nutritional goals and behaviors. The difference between a health coach and nutritionist is that a health coach focuses upon goal-setting strategies and accountability, while a nutritionist devises nutrition-based guidelines to address health issues.
There are many educational routes to follow to become a nutritionist:
- Bachelor’s degree with a major in nutrition, food science or public health.
- Postgraduate degree specializing in nutrition, including a graduate certificate, graduate diploma, master’s degree or a PhD.
A nutritionist’s daily regimen can include:
- Explaining nutrition and nutritional deficiencies.
- Discussing a client’s dietary habits to determine their health needs.
- Monitoring a client’s progress.
- Creating meal plans that align with a client’s health goals and budget.
Registered Dietitians (RDs) are often called nutritionists, but actually, the two aren’t the same. A dietitian is a health professional who has a bachelor’s degree in foods and nutrition, as well as practical training in a real-life setting. Four years of formal, full-time university study are necessary to qualify as a dietitian. This university program must be approved by the Accreditation Council for Education in Nutrition and Dietetics (ACEND). Many dietitians pursue a master’s or doctoral degree.
Coursework needed to become an RD may include:
- Food and nutrition sciences
Students must pass the clinical nutrition and dietetics (CDR) registration exam. Next, state licensing/certification requirements must be met. Laws about licensing/certification vary from state to state, so you’ll need to find out which ones your state enforces.
Dietitians can work in:
- Corporate wellness programs
- Private practice
There are a few main specialties within the RD profession:
- Clinical dietitians – A clinical dietitian is an RD who works in hospitals and long-term care facilities.
- Community dietitians – Community dietitians educate the public on food and nutrition issues. They practice in non-profits, public health clinics, HMOs, and government agencies.
- Management dietitians – These RDs plan meal programs in food corporations and cafeterias. They may buy food, oversee other dietitians and take care of the business side of managing a dietary or meal program.
Naturopaths are wellness providers who use natural remedies to help the body heal itself. Their therapies include herbs, acupuncture, and massage. Naturopathic medicine combines traditional treatments with modern science to treat the body, mind, and spirit. There are two types of naturopathic providers:
- Traditional naturopaths – Traditional naturopaths don’t attend an accredited naturopathic medical school or receive a license. Because of this, education and competence fluctuate from practitioner to practitioner.
Naturopathic physicians – These physicians attend an accredited graduate-level program and pass a postdoctoral board test called the Naturopathic Physicians Licensing Examinations (NPLEX) to receive a license. They learn the same basic sciences as regular doctors, but they also study nutrition, herbal medicine, and homeopathy.
Like health coaches, naturopathic doctors don’t attempt to suppress illnesses but strive to address the underlying causes. Naturopaths can order labs such as blood tests and x-rays, and in some states, prescribe medication and perform minor surgery. Naturopathic surgeons often treat conditions such as fatigue, sleep disturbance, and digestive issues.
Keep in mind that only 20 US states, plus Washington, DC, the US Virgin Islands and Puerto Rico, allow naturopathic doctors to practice legally. There’s also a huge variation in what those doctors are permitted to do. Arizona, for instance, allows naturopathic doctors to prescribe treatments such as IV therapy and injections, while Connecticut prohibits them from prescribing at all.
A life coach’s mission is motivating and encouraging people to reach their full potential. They work with everyone from Fortune 500 heavy hitters to homemakers. Tony Robbins is an example of a famous life coach.
No specific education is required to become a life coach, although it helps to be trained in teaching, counseling, and communication. Professional certification increases a life coach’s credibility.
Certification can be obtained through the International Association of Coaching (IAC) or the International Coach Federation (ICF). IAC certification requires submission of recorded coaching sessions demonstrating your practical skills. ICF certification requires completion of a specific number of paid coaching hours.
A life coach’s three main objectives are:
- Guiding – Helps clients release their inhibitions so they can reach their goals.
- Empowering – Helps clients build their self-esteem and regain their personal power.
- Improving – Helps clients navigate where they are now to where they want to be.
Some areas that life coaches address include:
- Building powerful relationships
- Getting out of a rut
- Communicating effectively
- Making more money
- Living fully and completely
A life coach isn’t a consultant who offers expert advice, but a professional who provides a framework, through questions and exercises, for you to discover the positive changes you need to make.
The titles “fitness coach” and “personal trainer” are often used interchangeably. But, there is a difference. An important distinction is that a fitness coach creates a program the client can live with for the rest of their lives. Much of their knowledge and experience comes from a strong background in sports and athletics.
Most people put themselves entirely in a personal trainer’s hands so the trainer can tell them exactly what activities to do and how to do them. When you work with a fitness coach, you have the opportunity to choose an activity you love and make that the foundation of your program.
You’ll still need strength training, cardio and flexibility training, but you can base your program around activities you love, such as skiing, mountain biking, walking, rollerblading or scuba diving. This way, fitness becomes a joy instead of a chore.
The centerpiece of fitness coaching is the sport that lights you up. The coach will co-create a program that ensures your enjoyment of the sport but also addresses your overall fitness.
A fitness coaching program takes about eight weeks, but you can continue for as long as you’d like. The process doesn’t end, and ultimately you’ll become your own coach and be motivated by what you want to do, not what you should do.
A personal trainer is someone who works one-on-one with clients to create a fitness routine. They implement strength training, stretching and other activities to help clients reach their fitness goals. Personal trainers work in gyms, recreational centers, hospitals and in clients’ homes.
According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the demand for personal trainers is expected to grow 10 percent by 2026.
Since this field is unregulated, anyone can call themselves a personal trainer. That said, Certification builds a personal trainer’s credibility, and most gyms won’t hire a personal trainer without it. If an uncertified personal trainer has their own business, many insurance companies won’t provide coverage.
It’s best to follow these steps to raise the odds of getting hired or starting your own business:
- Earn a high school degree.
- Complete AED/CPR certification – Personal trainer candidates should complete cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) and automatic external defibrillator (AED) certification programs.
- Choose a specialty – Choose a specialty that meshes with your skills and professional interests. For instance, you may choose group exercise or individualized training.
- Prepare for the certification exam – Certification is awarded by either the American Council on Exercise or the National Academy of Sports Medicine. Training can include anything from exam prep courses to multi-session training courses to undergraduate degrees in exercise science.
- Take and pass certification exam – Most certification exams are computer-based and have 120 to 130 multiple-choice questions.
A therapist (also called a psychotherapist) is a mental health professional who helps patients who have mental or emotional disorders. Psychotherapy addresses many problems, including depression, anxiety, and relationship issues. Unlike psychiatrists, therapists can’t prescribe medication.
Psychotherapy is often called talk therapy. This is because it involves a conversation between a patient and therapist to express and dissolve issues. Categories of talk therapy include:
- Cognitive behavioral therapy – A common type of talk therapy that targets and challenges harmful thoughts.
- Behavioral therapy – Helps clients understand how positive behavioral changes can affect their feelings.
- Interpersonal therapy – Addresses mental health issues, such as depression, that arise from a client’s interactions with others.
Therapists must get a formal education before they’re qualified to practice. They need to:
- Earn a bachelor’s degree.
- Obtain a master’s degree – Licensing is a mandatory part of a degree program or post-degree fellowship. Depending on the state where the candidate will be licensed, this supervised experience is typically 2,000 to 4,000 hours.
- Apply for a license – Once supervised hours are reached, therapist candidates must apply for a license by:
- Providing proof of graduation from an accredited advanced degree program.
- Showing proof of completed supervised residency.
- Passing the National Counselor Examination for Licensure and Certification.
- Providing proof of graduation from an accredited advanced degree program.
Health Coaching vs. Other Wellness Professions [Comparison Table]
Glancing at the list above, it’s easy to see why health coaching sometimes gets mistaken for these other health-related professions as they share many of the same roles. To clarify things further, here’s a snapshot showing the main ways health coaching differs from these other wellness fields:
|PROFESSION||KEY ROLE||JOB PREREQUISITES|
|Health Coach||Focuses on health an wellness goal-setting strategies and accountability||Low|
|Nutritionist||Offers food and nutritional advice||Low|
|Dietician||Offers food and nutritional advice; Can help diagnose eating disorders||High|
|Naturopath||Provides natural remedies to help the body heal itself (alternative therapies)||Low|
|Life Coach||Motivates and encourages clients to reach their full potential in all aspects of life||Low|
|Fitness Coach||Helps clients reach their long-term fitness goals (more personalized attention)||High|
|Personal Trainer||Helps clients reach their short-term fitness goals (less personalized attention)||Low|
|Therapist||Offers help to people with mental or emotional disorders||High|
Despite the similarities, nutritionists, dietitians, naturopaths, life coaches, fitness coaches, personal trainers, and therapists are unique professions that differ from health coaching in distinct ways.
Through comparing and contrasting these fields, you should be in a better position to decide which to explore further. If health coaching seems to resonate with you, see whether you exhibit the right traits for the job!
So, what are your thoughts about the difference between health coaching and these other wellness fields? Leave your comments below!Sources
I’ve always been into helping people live healthier lives. I tried fitness coaching and at one point was going to try and build a fitness career online but it didn’t work out (more for lack of trying than anything else). It was a bad time back then. Anyways, I never considered Health Coaching as an option. I think it would have suited me better as I am more into the nutrition side of things while encouraging a healthy lifestyle. Thanks for sharing and I hope this information helps many people grow in their health coaching careers.
Thanks for chiming in Marlinda! It’s never too late to try health coaching if it strikes your interest 🙂
Thank you for clarifying the differences between health coaching and other health professions. I always assumed that nutritionists and dietitians were the same. As far as my situation is concerned, health coaches are the most relevant to me. It is good to have someone who motivates you to have your best health. Think about it, your life is always different, with ups and downs all the time, and we sometimes forget to take care of ourselves.
Having a health coach helps remind you that your health is important. They can probably help you come up with the strategies that will fit your lifestyle. Ultimately if I can afford it I would like to have a life coach as well, since they will help me reach my highest performance. Great article, thanks for sharing.
Thanks for your kind words 🙂
Debbie, your article is very clear on one point: that health coaches should be “well-versed in how habits form and how to eliminate them”. That means there should be some form of personal experience or expertise present in the field beyond what most people know and experience. My concern is that many so-called health coaches are merely in it to make a dollar and really cannot add value based on their superior insights.
I hope I have a wrong impression here!
Thanks for a very enlightening article.
Hi Arie, that’s why getting certified as a health coach is so important, it helps you to stand out from those less serious.