Most of us will be diagnosed with chronic lifestyle diseases, such as obesity, diabetes, cancer, chronic lung disease, and cardiovascular disease, by the time we reach middle age. This is because we live our lives coping with stress through unhealthy diets, a sedentary lifestyle, and tobacco and alcohol use. But studies show an increased success rate in making lifestyle changes and reversing bad health habits by engaging with a lifestyle health coach.
Making lifestyle changes takes time to implement, requires support, and often lacks the instant gratification we have grown accustomed to in the digital age. However, if someone told you that you could prevent your premature death from a chronic lifestyle disease, would you do something about it? I think most of us would want to. To undo the bad habits we’ve developed over time, we must decide that our current behavior doesn’t support the way we want to live. Consider some of these statistics from the CDC on healthy living, or lack thereof:
- More than 60 percent of adults don’t get the recommended 150 minutes a week of moderate-intensity activity
- Only one out of 10 adults are eating enough fruits and vegetables
- More than 42.4 percent of adults are overweight or obese
It is estimated that we can prevent 20-40% of premature deaths before age 75 with lifestyle changes. So why aren’t more of us motivated to make them? Unfortunately, it isn’t lack of motivation but rather lack of support that keeps most of us from addressing lifestyle changes.
Committing to Lifestyle Changes
The National Prevention Council found that healthy students are better prepared to learn, employees that take care of their mental and physical health are more productive, and the elderly who remain physically and mentally active are more likely to live independently.
Most of us want to take a more active role in our health to experience these benefits. Every January 1st, we make New Year’s resolutions. For a few weeks, gyms are packed, and salad kits fly off grocery shelves. Yet by February, more than 80% of us have abandoned our goals. Common challenges to lifestyle change include:
- Lack of time
- Lack of accountability
- Lack of motivation
- Stress, mental, and physical exhaustion
We all know we need to do better. Most of us attempt to make changes and fail. What are we missing? New research suggests a health coach!
What is a Health Coach?
A ‘health coach‘ is a trained professional who partners with you over a specific time (anywhere from 90 days to a year or more) to help you achieve a particular health outcome. They don’t prescribe, diagnose, analyze, or treat health conditions. Instead, they are behavior change teachers, guiding their clients on how to successfully adopt and sustain healthy habits that prevent, ease, and even reverse chronic lifestyle diseases.
A health coach is a non-judgmental accountability partner. Let’s be honest; sometimes, you can’t even get that from your spouse, parents, or siblings. You should be able to establish a trusting relationship with your health coach that allows you to be honest, ask questions, and express doubts. By providing this support, health coaches offer options and suggestions, but taking action is still your responsibility.
“[My health coach] is always calm, kind, and proactive. Her approach makes me feel motivated even though I know I have a lot of action items, and many times, [struggle] to stay on track health-wise.” – Preventive Plan Member Survey Response
A health coach is also a teacher passing along relevant health education. The coach can bridge the gap between the patient and their primary care providers. Many people experience anxiety around attending doctor appointments. Your health coach can help translate what the doctor says into layman’s terms, help you improve communication with your doctor, identify questions to ask at your next visit, and support you on lifestyle or medication changes between visits.
They may have a health science degree, specialty certifications, or be a clinician. Regardless of their educational background, your health coach will be a caring individual invested in helping you achieve the best version of yourself.
Identifying Your “Why” for Behavior Change
Just hiring a health coach will not make you successful. You still have to be committed to making lifestyle changes and executing your goal plan. To do this, you must name your problem and decide that the hard work of changing outweighs the cons of staying the same.
Models of Change
According to the transtheoretical model of change, there are five primary stages you’ll pass through before creating a difference in your life:
- Precontemplation: You deny having a problem, but other people may be concerned for your health.
- Contemplation: You are thinking about the pros and cons of changing your lifestyle.
- Preparation: You have a goal and are taking steps to get ready to make a change.
- Action: You are actively working on changing your behavior.
- Maintenance: You figure out how to stick to your change over the long term.
And while it doesn’t have a number, we need to mention relapse. Being human means mistakes happen! The key is making sure you get back on track as quickly as possible.
Tools of the Trade
It is important for your health coach to identify which stage of change you are in. They use principles of active listening, motivational interviewing, and goal-setting as powerful tools to help you take charge of your health. When you meet with a health coach, you aren’t getting another lecture about how you need to lose weight from the doctor or an intense instructor berating you for not running fast enough. Instead, you get a supportive professional who wants to help you figure out your “why” for making change.
For example, if you are in the Precontemplation stage, they may need to deploy motivational interviewing to help you determine your “why.” We all balk when authority figures tell us what to do. Instead of saying “You need to lose weight,” rather your health coach may say, “How might your life be different if you lost the weight?” Designed to get to the root of why you want to make the change, these open-ended questions uncover your core motivation for changing yourself and lead to a higher chance of success than doing something because someone told you to.
Making a Healthy Habit Plan
Once you identify your primary health goal, it’s time to enter the preparation stage and talk about health plans and habits. Unfortunately, this is typically the step we skip on our own. Instead, we try to bend our habits as if we were bending metal with our bare hands. Then we are disappointed when it doesn’t move.
Your health coach will want to talk through your core habits. The more you do something, the more robust and efficient the connections in your brain are. You probably have solid practices and neural connections that you take for granted each day. We all have preferences on what time we wake up in the morning, eat our meals, and when we shower or brush our teeth.
Once your health coach understands your unique core habits, they can deploy a practice called habit stacking. Instead of creating new patterns from scratch, something our adult brains will struggle with, you pair a new habit with a current one. Here are a few examples:
- After I turn my alarm off in the morning, I will drink 8 ounces of cold water.
- While my morning coffee is brewing, I’ll pack a healthy lunch/snacks, so I don’t eat out.
- After eating my lunch, I’ll go on a 15-20 minute walk around the parking lot.
- When my family eats dinner, I’ll turn off the tv and ask everyone about their day.
- When I watch my favorite show, I’ll get on the stationary bike/treadmill.
- After I brush my teeth, I will meditate or journal for 10 minutes before going to bed.
It isn’t glamorous, but habit stacking works because you are linking a new habit to existing behaviors that already have a strong connection in your brain. This makes the new behavior more likely to stick. And, once you’ve mastered one habit, you can continue to stack on new practices, leading to a healthier routine.
Why You Need a Health Coach
Yes, you can decide to make a lifestyle change or create a health plan without a health coach. Let’s talk about why you need one.
The American Society of Training and Development (ASTD) did a study on accountability. There are two stats that are really important. The first part is that if you commit to someone your intention or goal, you have a 65% of completing that goal. That is decent odds. But, if you commit to someone AND add in a specific accountability appointment with that person, you increase your chance of success to 95 percent.
Did you read that last statistic? A person who sets a goal and keeps a regular session with their health coach on their progress, challenges, and wins will most likely reach their goal. By definition, the term ‘coach’ is a person who invests their time instructing or educating someone to improve their performance.
Health coaches have a variety of healthcare experience and education that they want to pass along to you. They guide you through the stages of change and will serve as your cheerleader, accountability partner, teacher, confidante, and healthcare resource all in one. Their number one goal is to help you improve your health and enhance your overall wellbeing.
Expectations for a Health Coach Call
Committing to meet with a health coach is a big step, so congratulations if you’ve already put something on the calendar. However, if you aren’t sure where to start on your health journey, that’s ok too! First, let’s set some expectations for your call with a health coach.
Your initial call will last anywhere from 15 minutes to an hour. If you have time constraints, make sure that is communicated upfront. It is important to spend a few minutes planning for your call. Ensure you’ve documented any questions or health topics and essential information relating to the specific type of coaching call you scheduled. This information could include a meal plan, food diary, exercise log, list of current habits, or recent lab values or health diagnoses.
Connect with Your Health Coach
You can utilize video or have a regular phone call. The choice is up to you; however, our health coaches love when they can see and connect with you, so don’t be afraid to turn on your video camera!
“The virtual experience was more personalized, feels like an informal and candid conversation.” – Preventive Plan Member Survey Response
The first question your coach will likely ask is, “Why did you schedule this call? or “Do you have specific topics or questions you’d like to address?” This is where that pre-call planning will be helpful! We all can freeze or have our brains go blank when put on the spot. Once you establish your main goal, you’ll collaborate with your health coach to formulate a health plan to help you reach it.
For example, our health coach, Christina, believes mental health is the foundation of a healthy lifestyle. If you’ve depleted your mental and emotional resources, keeping up with meal planning or going to the gym could be daunting. She might recommend a plan to reduce your stress and focus on self-care before suggesting a diet or exercise plan.
Routine Health Coach Follow-Ups
Now you are off and running, maybe literally. Your health coach is going to want to hear about your progress. Follow-up call cadence will depend on your specific health plan and how much accountability you require. Follow-up calls last 15 minutes to an hour and can happen once a week or as little as once a month.
In a follow-up call, your health coach will want to hear about your health plan progress. Sharing wins with you is the reason they do this job! However, don’t be afraid to share your challenges too. Your coach can help identify ways to get over these hurdles. They are an unbiased sounding board for you to utilize.
The Preventive Plan Care Team
The Preventive Plan’s health coaches are available Monday through Friday from 8 am to 6 pm Eastern Standard Time. Each coach has their personal availability that may differ slightly from this schedule.
This year we created a follow-up survey that is emailed to everyone who completes a health coaching session. The results validate what we already knew; our Preventive Plan mobile app users love our health coaches! They’ve rated their experience with our Care Team with a 4.9 out of 5 average rating. Our members also see the value in our approach to be more than just an app. More than 45 percent of respondents said their coach “significantly exceeded their expectations” during their coaching call.
“I learned so much in a very short period. I have almost all the [health] information I never knew before. I’m grateful for this as I think it will change my lifestyle.” – Preventive Plan Member Survey Response
In summary, while you can’t control your genetics, you can control how often you exercise, the amount of sleep, your tobacco and alcohol use, and your diet. While implementing lifestyle changes isn’t easy, no matter which area of your life you want to improve, utilizing a health coach increases your chance of success at implementing new healthy habits. So you can drop the bad habits and reach your health goals – for good.
And if you don’t believe me, just read some of our testimonials