At first glance, personal trainers and wellness coaches appear to have similar missions: helping people become healthier by guiding them to better decisions about exercise, fitness and other lifestyle choices.
The destination may be the same, but the two professions take distinctly different paths to help their clients achieve their goals.
Health clubs that offer the expanded services that skilled health and wellness coaches have in their toolboxes are likely to benefit, but club operators must be careful not to make the mistake of assuming that the roles of personal trainer and wellness coach are interchangeable.
"It isn't about just renaming what you're already doing," says Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches Corp., Wellesley, MA. "A lot of personal trainers are focused on the body and not on the mind. For coaching, you need to focus on facilitating change, not barking at a client to do 10 more push-ups."
A Different Mindset
To make a successful shift from personal training to health and wellness coaching, a person must adopt a more empathetic approach with clients, says Meg Jordan, a professor of integrated health studies at the California Institute of Integral Studies in San Francisco.
"Personal trainers, to become wellness coaches, will have to change how they work with people," Jordan says.
A trainer working to keep a client committed to a fitness regimen might have instructions such as sticking to fruits and vegetables, eating smaller portions and exercising four or five times a week, Jordan says.
In contrast, "a coach's first sentence is empathy," Jordan says. "The approach is compassionate and non-judgmental. Clients begin to think critically about their own behavior and move forward with newfound motivation and commitment."
Clients who choose a health and fitness program that meshes with the individual circumstances of their lives are more likely to adhere to it, as opposed to a regimen mandated by a personal trainer that may make sense for clients' physical conditions but may not take into account their personal needs and wants.
"I'm often asked what is the best exercise program," says Todd Galati, director of credentialing for the American Council on Exercise (ACE), San Diego, "and I always say, 'It's the one that the person you're working with is willing to do."
The emphasis on coaching for health and wellness has grown in recent years as advocates for better health saw that clients working with personal trainers followed a fitness program for a while, but frequently did not achieve their long-term health goals.
"Only a minority of the clients of personal trainers sustain changed behavior," Moore says. "The success rate is low. The coaching agenda is focused on sustainable change."
But desire is not enough to become an effective coach. Proper education and training is essential, coaching proponents say.
Various certification programs are available for health and wellness training. ACE has a health coach certification program, accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, that includes online study and materials.
"Many people have challenges outside the need for physical activity that might prevent them from carrying out their fitness goals—situations at work, nutrition, sleep problems, stress," Galati says. "A health coach can help people craft a program with meaningful steps that helps them improve the quality of their lives. You look at each person and meet people where they are."
GENAVIX Wellness Network, with 24 health clubs in New England, is partnering with ACE to incorporate ACE-certified health coaches into its clubs. ACE President and CEO Scott Goudeseune described the partnership as "a major step toward delivering the type and variety of programming and support that actually enables employees to attain and maintain a favorable health status."
Wellcoaches also offers training and certification for wellness coaches. Moore says the Wellcoaches programs, which are endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), place greater emphasis on interactive sessions, practice and mentoring. Its core health and wellness coach training program is for 18 weeks; its professional coach training and certification program takes 10 months to complete.
"It's a sophisticated skill set," Moore says. "It takes a significant investment in energy and time."
Having workers certified as health and wellness coaches may prove beneficial to clubs, but because there is no consensus on what skills and training a worker must have to claim that title, clients may be wary that some so-called coaches don't measure up.
That concern is why Moore, Jordan and others in the health and wellness field are helping to lead an effort to create national standards for certification of health and wellness coaches. The National Consortium for Credentialing of Health and Wellness Coaches, with 75 participating individuals and organizations, including ACE and ACSM, was formed to develop such standards.
Noting that more than 50,000 people describe themselves as health or wellness coaches, the group is striving to establish "a clear and agreed-upon definition of the term 'health and wellness coaching,' as well as a professional certification that sets a minimum standard."
Moore says she anticipates the consortium will have proposed standards ready by late 2015.
In August, the consortium's executive board endorsed what it calls a Job Task Analysis, which spells out 21 specific tasks that a health and wellness coach should perform. The consortium is conducting a validation survey to determine if the analysis should be amended or expanded, Jordan says.
The consortium also is working on determining what the prerequisites should be for coach training and education programs, and the minimum required number of contact hours for training, education, mentoring and practical skills evaluation.
The executive board has agreed on the need for a national certification examination that includes a knowledge-based written test and a practical skills exam demonstrating coaching proficiency. The board says such an exam could be available within two years.
For health and wellness coaches to maximize their effectiveness in health clubs, some clubs may need to change their culture.
"Health clubs are not particularly person-centered," Moore says. "The emphasis is on looking good, not on the people. Clubs need to adopt coaching principles as part of their culture....sitting down with people and talking with them."
The change needs to come from the top, she says.
"The owner or someone at the top needs to be trained in coaching and then be able to train their staff," Moore says.
"You don't want wellness coaches sitting alone in an office down the hallway. Clubs need to have an infrastructure in which coaches are supported."
Providing clients with additional services from properly trained employees may lead to more clients and clients who are more satisfied.
"You'll draw more people through your doors if you're offering more services," Galati says. "That will lead to better retention."