Working with a health coach can provide the motivation, individualized attention and accountability you need to turn your good intentions into positive actions.

Why try this growing trend? Because if you're like many people, you know what you should do to improve your health, but you have trouble getting started or sticking with a more healthful nothing ever changes for long.

A health coach offers one-on-one, step by step support-whether your goal is to lose weight, eat healthier, sleep better, have more energy, exercise more, quit smoking, lower your stress level, reduce your risk for chronic diseases and/or recover from an illness or injury-that increases your odds of succeeding at making permanent life-enhancing changes.

How it works: "A new behavior must be practices for at least 100 days to become an entrenched part of who you are and how you live, rather than just something that you're doing for a while. Most doctors aren't trained in helping patients make such sustainable changes. But a health coach can health you overcome your natural inertia, build internal motivation and incorporate lasting changes into the fabric of your daily life,'' said Karen Lawson, MD, director of health coaching at the University of Minnesota Center for Spirituality & Healing.

Research confirms the benefits. For instance, in a Duke University study, health coaching helped people with diabetes take their medications on schedule, exercise regularly and control their blood sugar better. And a study of nearly 175,000 people published in The New England journal of Medicine found that participants who were coached via telephone spent less money on medical care and drugs and were 10% less likely to be admitted to the hospital than those who were not coached.

Health coaching is particularly helpful for people who have or are at high risk for chronic conditions such as diabetes or heart disease. However, it can benefit just about anybody who wants to enhance his or her health and well-being.

What to expect from coaching

Health coaching is very much a client driven relationship, Dr. Lawson said, so the content and style of sessions vary widely depending on clients' particular goals. Sessions can be done individually or in groups... can be conducted in person, over the phone or via the video-chat program Skype... and generally last 30 to 60 minutes. A total of five to eight sessions would be typical.

A health coach's role is to help you...

Create a personalized plan for meeting your health goals, whether those goals have to do with your physical, mental, emotional and/or spiritual well-being.

Recognize and shift the behaviors, beliefs and emotions that have been blocking your success or your readiness to change.

Break your goals into manageable steps and track measurable progress.

Learn specific strategies (for instance, how to interpret food labels, carve out time for exercise or establish a sleep-enhancing bedtime routine) aimed at achieving your goals.

• Communicate more openly with your doctors and other health-care providers.

Finding the right coach

Health coaches often come to the field by way of other health-care professions-so you may find a coach who also is a physician, chiropractor, nurse, nutritionist, acupuncturist, pharmacist, chaplain or psychologist. Other people become health coaches after initially working in a wellness-related field such as personal training, yoga instruction or massage therapy.

Caution: Since health coaching is  a relatively new field, there is no national credentialing system yet in place to ensure high-quality training and professional competence-in fact, anyone can call himself or herself a health coach. (To learn more about national credentialing efforts, visit So it is important to investigate any coach you're considering working with before you sign on.

To get started, ask your physician, therapist and/or friends for referrals to health coaches in your area... also check with your insurance company and local hospital. Then schedule a face-to-face or phone consultation with several candidates (generally this introductory session is free). During the initial interview, ask the coach about his or her...

• Training. You want at least 80 hours of education in health coaching from established and reputable training programs, such as University of Minnesota, Duke University, California Institute of Integral Studies, Well coaches School of Coaching (in Wellesley, Massachusetts) and Tai Sophia Institute at Maryland University of Integrative Health, Dr. Lawson said. Ask how people were trained-have they had supervision in actually doing coaching, or did they learn through online tutorials? Also consider how well the coach's background matches your needs-for instance, a nurse with a cardiac-care background might be an optimal choice if you are a heart patient but less ideal if your goal is to reduce stress or improve sleep.

Number of clients. Choose someone who has coached a minimum of 30 clients, Dr. Lawson advised.

Best: Also ask for the names of three clients whom you can contact for references.

Fees. These depend on your location and the coach's level of training, but typically range anywhere from about $70 to $250 per session. Some coaches do packages at a discount rate. Some employers and some health insurance plans cover at least part of the cost.

Coaching philosophy and particular interests. This is inherently a holistic field, so coaches should have some working knowledge of a broad array of health topics, including nutrition, fitness, conventional medicine, complementary therapies, psychology and spiritual practices. Coaches who identify themselves as integrative in their training and practice generally have more familiarity with complementary or nonconventional therapeutic approaches. Weigh how well your personal goals mesh with a coach's particular area of expertise. For instance, if you want to make over your diet and lose weight, you might opt for a coach who is also an organic gardener or accomplished chef .. .if you want to relieve stress and enhance your creative life, you might prefer a coach experienced in meditation and art therapy.

Also remember: Pay attention to how you feel with each coach you interview. Like psychotherapy, coaching is a relationship centered practice, Dr. Lawson said-so success depends in part on choosing a health coach you trust and respect and are comfortable with.

Still skeptical about trying a health coach? Think of it this way: You use professionals in many areas of your life-from cutting your hair to selling or buying a home. What area is more important than your health?

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