Wellness Coaching on the Rise in Industry

When Margaret Moore, founder and CEO of Wellcoaches Corp., explains what wellness coaching is, she says to visualize yourself on your life path. Above you is your goal.

“Now, draw the building blocks to get you there,'” she says.

In the visualization, a wellness coach metaphorically holds a client's ladder and is armed with a safety net in case the client falls while climbing that ladder.

Much like a personal trainer, a wellness coach supports an individual through behavior change, but unlike a personal trainer, the client is treated as the expert regarding his or her life, not the wellness coach. By asking the client probing questions and helping them set smaller goals to reach their overall goal, a coach helps set the path for the client to achieve that goal whether or not it is related to fitness. Coaching can help members reach a myriad of goals, from losing weight to competing in a triathlon to smoking cessation.

Because coaching is less about the gym and more about relationships and building self efficacy, many fitness professionals say wellness coaching — sometimes also called lifestyle or fitness coaching — is the wave of the future, especially when it comes to attracting and keeping deconditioned members. Twenty-seven percent of IDEA Health and Fitness members surveyed for the 2007 IDEA Fitness Programs and Equipment Survey offer lifestyle coaching. Seventy-two percent of those surveyed said that lifestyle coaching was a growing trend, and not one survey respondent thought that it was a program that was declining in popularity.

“People in our industry have a real passion for helping people, and coaching just takes it one step forward,” says Kathie Davis, IDEA Health and Fitness Association executive director.

Davis adds that when group exercise instructors and personal trainers work with members, they only work on exercise, but other factors, such as psychology and time management, also play a part in keeping members on track with their fitness goals. Not only can wellness coaching help in that area, but many times, coaching also can serve as a bridge to other areas of the facility. Coaches often refer their clients to personal trainers for workouts or dietitians for nutrition advice, club operators say. Coaches may also refer clients to a yoga or Pilates class for stress reduction.

“This is definitely a trend for the future,” Davis says. “Lifestyle coaching will continue to grow, and it would be smart for health club owners to try to offer this in their facilities.”

Some people in the industry are even calling wellness coaching “the next personal training” for the industry. Laura Klein, wellness director of The Thoreau Club, Concord, MA, equates the industry's current view of coaching to that of personal training 20 years ago.

“It's definitely a concept whose time has come, but a lot of clubs are waiting to see what other clubs are doing,” she says. “Personal training is just now accepted. Coaching hasn't quite gone over that tipping point yet.”

The first facilities to offer coaching programming have been full-service health clubs and wellness centers, Davis says. Many facilities offer coaching as an a la carte item, similar in price to personal training. Other facilities bundle wellness coaching as part of a comprehensive program.

For more than two years, The Thoreau Club has offered wellness coaching to its 3,000 members as well as to nonmembers. The 90-day Fit Forever program includes weekly coaching sessions in person or over the phone, an individualized nutrition consultation, two specialty sessions (such as additional nutritional counseling, personal training, private Pilates lessons or private swim lessons), and a log book and other support materials.

More than 80 percent of nonmembers who complete the program join the facility, and 50 percent of nonmembers in the coaching program purchase additional add-on services at the club, Klein says.

“We've found that it's a great acquisition tool for getting new members because coaching is very appealing to the non-exerciser,” she says. “Participants can see that coaching is going to be the way that they're going to be successful in achieving their goals.”

The management at ACAC Fitness and Wellness Centers has also had success with coaching. About four years ago, a nutritionist at the club suggested getting certified as a wellness coach. Today, every ACAC nutritionist is certified in wellness coaching, and about 75 fitness staff members have been through a wellness coaching workshop, says Amanda Harris, vice president of fitness and wellness at ACAC, which has locations in West Chester, PA; Charlottesville, VA; and Richmond, VA. Although the facilities do not promote coaching by name to members, the club's nutritionists and many fitness professionals use coaching in their sessions and programming. Because coaching is worked into many areas of the club, Harris can't offer a set cost for coaching, but on average, it brings in about $65 an hour, which is about the same as ACAC's highest level of personal training services, she says.

“It's a great way to sell training and other services,” says Harris, who is studying to be a certified wellness coach. “When you're coaching, you're not selling anymore. You're providing solutions to people who really need your help. It's better than the icky sales thing.”

Moore says that getting nutritionists certified in coaching is a natural way for clubs to introduce the practice into their programming because nutrition counseling is about sitting down and talking, something that people expect to do with a dietitian but not with a fitness professional.

“You don't see people having a deep conversation when they're being personally trained,” she says.

Coaches and fitness professionals who aren't trained in coaching have a synergistic relationship, Moore says. If a client's goal deals with weight-loss or improving fitness, then the nutritionist/coach will usually refer the client to a personal trainer or other fitness professional within the club. On the flip side, personal trainers who aren't seeing results with their clients due to emotional eating or other outside issues can refer their clients to a wellness coach. When a fitness professional or nutritionist is also a coach, the benefits are two-fold, Moore says.

Cathleen Brooks Weiss, executive director of the Next Step Institute of Integrative Medicine in Vail, CO, says wellness coaching can help expand health clubs' role in people's lives.

“I think more and more people are looking for a way to take care of themselves more holistically,” she says. “A fitness center that offered stress management and relaxation, along with yoga, and offered weekly seminars on various wellness topics, and perhaps a coach with a database on other issues, would provide that one-stop wellness shop.”

Despite some clubs' success, coaching takes work and money to implement, operators say. Coaching certifications cost considerably more than personal training certifications and can take much longer to complete. For example, a Wellcoaches' coaching certification takes about two years to complete and costs $1,200 compared to personal training certifications that typically cost $500 and take less than one year to complete. Other coaching certifications can cost even more, Harris says.

“I've had fitness staff members interested, but they'll say they don't have the time to study, which can be frustrating,” she says. “The certifications are heavy on the psychology, and most personal training certifications don't have that. All the material is important, though.”

Coaching certifications also require a high level of professionalism and maturity to complete, experts say. Because many personal trainers and other fitness professionals are under 25 years old, they may not have the life experiences yet to make for a successful coach. Most master wellness coaches are 40 years old or older, Moore says.

Some fitness facility operators and employees may resist offering coaching because they view it as a threat to their client base.

“There's probably some unspoken worries that people won't come to a gym as regularly because they have other activities they're working on with coaching,” Moore says, noting that coaches may urge clients to get active in places they love, which may or may not be in a health club. “But I think there's room for everything.”

One thing is certain: If a club is going to offer fitness or wellness coaching, coaches must be certified or trained in it, says Kate Larsen, IDEA presenter, lifestyle coach and author of “Progress Not Perfection: Your Journey Matters.” Coaching certifications have mirrored personal training certification's evolution, she says.

“Initially, there wasn't a lot of licensing for personal trainers, but today — across the board — you have to be credentialed,” Larsen says. “I think that'll be the standard for wellness and lifestyle coaching as well.”

Fitness education organizations are recognizing the need for more education and workshops on coaching, too. A year ago, the American College of Sports Medicine partnered with Wellcoaches and the Medical Fitness Association to offer one-day and two-day coach training workshops that provide an introduction to coaching psychology along with the key processes and the skills of coaching.

Harris worked with a coaching certification organization to offer a one-day wellness coaching workshop twice a year at ACAC. To bring the workshop to the club, ACAC pays a flat rate, as well as travel, hotel and food expenses for the presenter. The workshop helps educate those fitness professionals who don't have the time to pursue a full certification but who want basic coaching skills, Harris says.

Moore suggests that club owners see coaching as an entirely new revenue stream, noting that coaching has the potential to be as lucrative as personal training. On average, coaches see lasting behavior change in 70 percent to 80 percent of their clients. Most personal trainers can't say that, she says.

“Your next new 10 percent [of revenue] could be from coaching because with coaching you're getting new revenue from new kinds of clients,” she says.

At ACAC, coaching has kept some new members from leaving the club, Harris says.

“The new members who get into coaching with a trainer or a nutritionist are shown that their membership is worth something,” she says. “[Club operators and fitness professionals] in the life-changing business are going to want to do wellness coaching in some form.”

To succeed with wellness coaching, clubs have to get outside of their own four walls, Klein says. She suggests working with hospitals, schools and community centers to let them know that you do more than just provide a good workout — you change lives. Due to Fit Forever's success, The Thoreau Club recently doubled the program's price to members and nonmembers.

Tips on Implementing a Coaching Program

  • Educate your members

    “It took 10 years for the industry to accept personal training and another 10 years for consumers to accept it,” Klein says, adding that it's just a matter of time before coaching is as widely accepted as personal training is today. “If you're a club owner or operator, I suggest getting on the bandwagon.”

    Most people don't know what coaching is. Post information around your facility about coaching. Then, offer a free mini-consultation with a wellness coach so that members can try it first-hand.

  • Give options

    If you're building coaching into a larger weight-loss or wellness program, give members the option to try other services at your facility, such as seeing a nutritionist, having a one-on-one yoga session or meeting with a personal trainer.

  • Think beyond the short term

    New members are particularly well-suited to coaching because it can help them feel comfortable in the gym. Define what your club's vision is beyond selling more memberships. Find that message and market it to the community.

  • Encourage workouts after sessions

    Many new members cite getting to the gym as one of the biggest deterrents to regular exercise. Since most coaching is done in the club, have your coaches encourage their clients to come dressed to work out. That way, members can easily work out following their appointment.

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