What Is Health Coaching?

Weight Loss

What exactly is health coaching?

Health coaching is not the same as life coaching. Life coaching helps people to gain levels of happiness in all aspects of their lives. They help people to focus on what they want, how to overcome the obstacles and to get what they are striving for. Health coaching is very different from life coaching. Health coaching is a specialty.  Health coaches help people with strategies with exercise, nutrition, and health. Health coaches coach people through lifestyle changes and helps to promote weight management and wellness. Health coaching isn’t personal training.  

You may see some different names for health coaching such as:

  • health and wellness coaching
  • integrative health coaching
  • wellness coaching.

They are all trying to do the same thing, which is to help people improve their health. Health coaches do this by helping the client to break a behavior.  

ACE (American Council on Exercise) https://www.acefitness.org/ uses the term health coach. Wellcoaches has a program that certifies health and wellness coaches. Duke University certifies integrative health coaches, and the Mayo Clinic trains people to be wellness coaches. These names may be different but the main principle is the same and that is to help people to learn how to improve their health.  

A health coach can help change a person’s negative behaviors that are weight-related into more positive behaviors that promote change for them to be healthier. How does this work? A new desired behavior is selected and an individual will start to learn how to work toward that behavior by doing habitual activities. These activities start to become automatic. The result is that the formed habit continues perpetually.

How a health coach helps a client break a health-related behavior is an individualized process. The best way to explain this process is to relate this to a very common weight loss scenario.

You went to your primary care physician for your annual physical. You dread having your weight taken as you know that you need to lose a few pounds. Your doctor has been watching your cholesterol levels because they are borderline. He is also monitoring your weight as it keeps going up a few pounds every year. Your BMI is slowly creeping higher each year. Your doctor has prescribed medication for your cholesterol. He explains that you may not have to take this medication if you lose some weight. You decide that you need to start exercising to get off of the medication and lose that unwanted body fat. You plan to wake up earlier in the morning to exercise and clean up your diet. You start to exercise regularly in the morning for a few months. Your career requires some occasional travel. Your travel schedule causes you to not be as regular with your exercise routine and your nutrition. As a result, your new morning routine has dropped from a regular positive habit to something sporadic. You felt energized, positive and very happy when you exercised regularly. You felt that you had control over your long term health goals. Your outlook on just about everything is not as positive as it used to be. You feel like you lost control over just about everything.  

A habit loop has formed. This habit loop is repeated over and over again. This loop is a behavior that needs to be changed. The problem is that it is a habit that was learned. To stop this behavior, you have to unlearn this behavior. Finding a way to change this behavior is the hard part. Changing a habit can take a lot of time. Working with a skilled health coach can help you change this negative behavior into more positive behavior. You can be happier. You can be healthier. You can be in control again.    

A habit loop is made up of cues in your environment, the behavior, and the reward. Cues can be internal or external. A cue is what provokes a learned behavior. An important aspect to note about internal cues is that they are related to mood. The behavior is the habit which is a learned behavior. The reward is what makes the behavior stick. Rewards teach the brain that the behavior in question promotes pleasure. The more habitual the behavior is, the more ingrained it is in the brain to the point where it never leaves.

What happens in your brain when a habit is forming? Your new brain and your old brain are at war with one another. The new brain is your cerebral cortex and prefrontal cortex which is the outer region of your brain. Those parts of your brain are your rational, conscious parts of your brain. This is where critical thinking happens, planning happens, where learned behaviors are.

The old brain, comprising of the basal ganglia and the limbic systems, is associated with the inner regions of your brain. These systems are associated with emotional processing. The basal ganglia are responsible for deciding if a negative or positive response resulted from a behavior. This determines if a behavior will occur repeatedly or not at all. Basal ganglia have a role in behavior automation as well. The more that behavior is repeated, the basal ganglia stores the response to this behavior. It can be repeated again and again without even thinking about it.

Your new brain, cerebral cortex, and prefrontal cortex have planned that you are getting up earlier to do your morning walk or to hit the local fitness center. Your old brain, basal ganglia, and limbic system are right there alongside your new brain during the next month or so. You have a work trip, the external cue, that causes a few days of disruption in your new routine. You return from your trips and your new morning routine schedule hasn’t been as routine as it was before. You are struggling to get back on track. Your old brain is now speaking to you very loudly as to how hard it is to get back in the driver seat of the new regular morning routine.

Your old brain is saying to you that it would just be easier if you didn’t have to get up, pack your gym bag and drive to the fitness center. It would be easier not to be on the elliptical for 30 minutes. This is the behavior! Your old brain has overridden your new brain. It’s telling you that avoiding the gym and avoiding the boredom on the elliptical is too hard. This is the reward! You stop going to the gym and the downward spiral starts again. The old habit loop has started.

In the next blog, I’ll discuss how to change this negative behavior pattern to a healthier more positive behavior pattern that promotes weight loss.

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