What is a wellness coach?

By Saybrook University

By Dr. Devorah Curtis, Ph.D., B.C.C.

Portrait of retiree and wellness coach

A faculty member from Saybrook University’s new master’s degree program in Integrative Wellness Coaching talks about the increased demand for the sought-after coaching curriculum and how it can be applied in a variety of health care settings.

The role of a certified wellness coach is often misunderstood. Some people hear the title and immediately think about the fitness consultant at the local gym club—the one who might tell you what to eat and how to squat or which machines are best for getting those abs in shape.

But a wellness coach is so much more, and they have never been more in demand. From private practice to hospitals to fitness centers, wellness coaches are on the cutting edge of lifestyle medicine.

One of my first tasks when I joined Saybrook University was to co-teach the “Foundations of Health and Wellness Coaching” class within the College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences.  In this course, we exposed students to the coaching profession and the expanding career opportunities they could pursue.  Each year we taught the class, the students expressed their interest in the profession and asked us for more.  In 2013, inspired by the success of this class, Drs. Kelly, Phelps, and I co-developed a health and wellness coaching certificate program. As the program grew with more students each year, the curriculum was recognized by professional credentialing organizations—including the International Coach Federation (ICF) and the National Consortium for Credentialing Health and Wellness Coaches (NCCHWC).

To further advance the certificate program with an emphasis in lifestyle medicine, applied coaching interventions, and niche specific interests, we recently created a M.A. degree program in Integrative Wellness Coaching.  This new, fully accredited degree program will prepare students with the fundamental competencies and skills to work within a variety of settings, such as private practice, employee wellness centers and corporate offices. The program launched with its first cohort in Fall 2017.

But that still leaves the question, what exactly does a certified wellness coach do?

Wellness Coaching: An Emerging Niche

As U.S. and global health care systems evolve, the need for professionals who are trained and certified in wellness coaching is higher than ever. With a shifting emphasis on modifying lifestyle and behavior, certified wellness coaches have become a necessary part of any integrative medicine or health care team.

Let’s face it. Because of time restrictions, it’s not uncommon for medical providers to lack the extra 30 minutes needed to sit with a patient to talk about stress management or to develop a plan to address high risk behaviors such as eating a poor diet, living a sedentary lifestyle, drinking alcohol or smoking. But that where a certified wellness coach comes in, doing these and more to help their patients.

Whether it’s helping those with a chronic illness adjust to different lifestyle habits, manage diet and exercise goals, or support clients as they identify resources to complement a long-term treatment plan, certified wellness coaches can have a lasting impact on the lives of their clients as an integral member of a multidisciplinary healthcare team.

More and more health practitioners, educators, and consultants are seeking coach education and training in health and wellness coaching to learn the skills that facilitate lifestyle change behaviors.

These practitioners are contributing to the rising trends in “lifestyle medicine.”

What is lifestyle medicine?

The American College of Preventive Medicine defines lifestyle medicine as a scientific approach to decreasing the risk of chronic illnesses through lifestyle interventions. This could be anything from nutrition and exercise to help managing stress and sleep patterns.

Certified wellness coaches often focus on promoting healthy lifestyle habits to prevent chronic illness, but those same principles are equally important to enhance and optimize performance and wellness goals for a higher quality of life.

The approach is very individualized and can include anything from promoting overall health and wellness to providing counseling to feed a client’s personal goals. Much like a life coach, a wellness coach often works side by side with a patient over a long period of time.

Best practices call for wellness coaches to display unconditional positive regard for their clients and a belief in their capacity for change. Recognized by its humanistic roots, it’s no wonder, then, that the subject matter of coaching has become so popular at Saybrook.

As a long-time scholar of self-determination theory, the value of life coaching to empower individuals is undeniable. I am proud to be part of Saybrook’s mission by providing students with the tools they need to make a positive impact in their communities and the world.

Find out more about this program.

Since 2012, Dr. Devorah Curtis has taught, co-developed, and supervised Mind-Body Medicine and Integrative Wellness programs for Saybrook University’s College of Integrative Medicine and Health Sciences. Before joining Saybrook, Dr. Curtis worked as a health and fitness consultant, behavioral analyst and leadership development consultant, and professional coach in both integrative care and private practice.