With obesity skyrocketing, the fitness industry is trying a new tack in the battle of the bulge. Increasing numbers of personal trainers and instructors are becoming wellness coaches, and they’re not just targeting your heart rate. They’re also taking aim at lifestyle issues — from cigarettes and chocolate to your messy desk, overbooked schedule, even relationship woes — all of which can be hurdles to a healthier you.
But unlike conventional personal training, you don’t necessarily have to reveal your potbelly or cottage-cheese thighs to a wellness coach, who’s more likely to communicate with you by phone or e-mail than in person.
The convenience of coaching appealed to Jay Conway, 50, an advertising executive from Providence, R.I. He knew he needed to eat better and get more exercise, but with a demanding job and three kids — ages 5, 11 and 15 — it was difficult to find the time and motivation.
So when he heard about a program offered through his company’s health plan, in which people were paired with wellness coaches to help manage their health, he decided to try it.
After completing a health questionnaire, he was partnered with Steve Auferoth, health and fitness director for the city of Eugene, Ore., who also works as a coach through Wellcoaches.com. “I laughed when they said he was in Eugene,” Conway recalls.
A year later, Conway and Auferoth have still never met. Instead, they talk on the phone about once a month. For the first few months though, they talked once a week to identify Conway’s goals and figure out ways to meet them.
Achieving goals one step at a time
Coaching is intended to help people achieve their goals one step at a time, in ways that are practical for the client.
With Conway, Auferoth started very slowly, with an initial exercise regimen that called for a total of 12 minutes of exercise a week — spread over three sessions. Conway eventually worked up to exercising four to five times a week, for 45 minutes to an hour each session, though he has tapered off a bit since then.
To help fit in exercise, they took a hard look at Conway’s schedule and devised a plan in which he would begin making exercise a priority, not an afterthought.
“He made it almost impossible for me not to get a workout in,” says Conway. “It became more of my routine, which is where it was when I was younger.”
Together, they also worked on improving Conway’s diet, gradually introducing more fruits, vegetables and water. Conway also learned relaxation techniques to ease stress at work.
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During each phone conversation, Auferoth would chart Conway’s progress.
Such accountability is one of the keys to coaching’s success, experts say. Regular appointments with a coach may serve as motivation for making health improvements.
Beyond personal training
While coaching is no stranger to the corporate world where it has been used to help make managers more effective leaders, health insiders say the practice — in this context often referred to as wellness, lifestyle or fitness coaching — is becoming a hot trend in the exercise field.
It goes beyond personal training, whether online or off. While coaches, like trainers, may craft workouts for clients, they also are likely to address diet, stress, smoking and other bad health habits. They also might delve into issues like time management, career conflicts and even interpersonal problems.
“Everything’s so interconnected,” says trainer and lifestyle coach Susan Cantwell, director of marketing and public relations for Coach U, a coach training company. Based in the Canadian city of Fredericton, New Brunswick, Cantwell also is a spokesperson for IDEA, a trade group for fitness professionals.
A person’s weight-loss efforts would likely fail if stress at work leads to snacking on fatty comfort foods and skipping exercise, or if caring for young children or aging parents leaves no time for a workout. So each issue must be addressed as part of a larger game plan.
But rather than dictate all the answers, coaches generally ask a number of questions to try to get clients to come up with their own solutions. “When people find their own answers, they have much more ownership in following through,” says Cantwell.
No gym intimidation
In addition to convenience, another appeal of coaching is that it provides some anonymity, says Sheryl Marks Brown, CEO of Wellcoaches and the founder of the American Council on Exercise, who is based in Vista, Calif.
Last November, Wellcoaches and the American College of Sports Medicine announced a partnership to train the association’s members in coaching skills, and so far more than 100 have completed the 10-week program.
For many people, particularly those who are out of shape, gyms have an “intimidation factor,” she says. People who aren’t happy with their shape may feel uncomfortable with a buff trainer or working out among other hard bodies. Coaching can help them find ways to exercise with more privacy.
Others who don’t have time to go to a gym or who simply prefer to exercise outdoors or at home can work with a coach to fit exercise into their life.
Exercise physiologist Walt Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta and an American College of Sports Medicine spokesperson, says coaching may be more successful than personal training because it takes a “holistic” approach, addressing issues that can interfere with healthful behaviors and developing strategies for achieving overall well-being that are tailored to the individual’s needs and preferences.
“I think it’s the wave of the future,” he says.
The hope is that coaching will promote positive — and long-lasting — health behaviors, but how well it effects permanent change is not known.
Without geographic boundaries, coaching offers a way for many in the fitness industry to dramatically expand their client base — and their income. The cost of coaching sessions varies widely from about $35 for a half-hour session up to $150 or more, and many coaches want a three-month commitment.
But some experts are concerned unqualified people will embark on coaching or overstep their bounds.
“Like the personal training industry, it’s unregulated,” says Thompson.
One worry is that shady coaches won’t know when to start referring. Coaches are not trained to deal with eating disorders, clinical depression or other serious issues that warrant a trip to a therapist or other specialist. Likewise, a coach with an extensive fitness background is probably not the best person to help you decide how to finalize a divorce settlement or whether to sell your stocks.
And because coaches may never see clients, there are concerns about safe exercise practices. To address this, Wellcoaches has set up a system to allow coaches and clients see each other through computer video, provided both parties have the technology. Still, people who need a lot of fitness instruction and supervision may be better working with a personal trainer — or combining coaching with training.
Conway said he felt confident he was exercising correctly, so it didn’t bother him not to see his coach in person. In fact, he liked the freedom from regularly scheduled face-to-face sessions. “To be very honest,” he says, “I felt it was less intrusive.”
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