What Exactly Is A Health Coach & What Makes A Good One?
Health coaches can often be mistaken for nutritionists or fitness instructors. While these professions all focus on helping people get healthier, health coaches have a more holistic and all-encompassing approach to exercise, food, and beyond.
If you're interested in learning more about what it means to be a health coach and whether or not it's right for you, read on. We spoke with experts in the field for insights on starting a fulfilling career in health coaching.
What is a health coach?
Health and well-being coaches empower clients to improve their health—be it by eating healthier or getting more sleep. These trained wellness professionals help clients identify and clarify their goals and take the proper steps to achieving them using evidence-based approaches and frameworks. Health coaching has proven effective in clinical trials1.
Unlike doctors, health coaches do not prescribe medication, make diagnoses, or interpret lab results. Instead, they offer support, motivation, and positive psychology to help clients make behavioral change.
"Health coaches help you to discover and implement practices that can sustain long-lasting improvement to your overall health and well-being," meditation instructor and certified health coach Pilin Anice, tells mindbodygreen.
Health coaches can be employed in a number of different settings—from hospitals to functional medicine practices to universities. Some health coaches also opt to open their own coaching businesses. Becoming certified in health coaching can also help people expand in their current wellness-focused career path, such as nursing or personal training.
How do you train to be a health coach?
The first step to becoming a health coach is to go through a health coaching program. These programs differ in time commitment (they can last from three months to multiple years), focus area (some are more focused on nutrition; others fitness) and format (some are virtual while others are in person). These programs are generally offered through nutritional schools or other health and wellness organizations.
Programs that are accredited by the The National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching (NBHWC) (like mindbodygreen's Health Coach Certification program!) set you up to take the NBHWC board exam and become a certified health coach. Not all practicing health coaches are certified. However, the NBHWC certification enhances a coach's credibility and sets them up to take on more clients.
The NBHWC is a trusted governing body that sets the international standard for the quality and qualifications of health coaching. Reputable companies like Parsley Health, Hinge Health, and more now specifically require NBHWC certification as a qualification for working as an in-house health coach. These types of jobs are expected to become more and more common, especially as the movement grows to get health coaching sessions approved for reimbursement by insurance.
To become NBHWC certified, health coaches must pass a rigorous final examination following their training program. Once you pass your exam, you can either apply for a job as a certified health coach or launch your own practice.
What it's like to take a health coaching program
What do health coaches do?
Health coaches are qualified for a variety of different types of jobs. They can open their own private health coaching practice or be employed as a coach in a school, hospital, or clinic. They can also work in corporate wellness or join a functional medicine practice like Parsley Health to offer further support to patients. There are also many remote jobs for health coaches, through digital coaching platforms like Noom or Optavia.
How much money do health coaches make?
Health coach salaries vary depending on location, certification and qualifications, and level of experience. However, the average base-level salary for a certified health coach ranges from $62,000 to $102,000 a year according to Glassdoor data. As you progress in your career and take on more clients, you can expect to earn significantly more. The most lucrative U.S. cities for health coaching include San Francisco, New York, and Boston, per Salary.com data.
RELATED STORY: As A Health Coach, This Is The Salary Range You Can Expect
What's the difference between a health coach and nutritionist?
While health coaches can specialize in nutrition, they have different roles and credentials than registered dietitians (RDs).
RDs are licensed and regulated by state licensing boards, for example, while certified health coaches operate under a different national board certification by the NBHWC. RDs can prescribe dietary interventions and recommend supplements, while health coaches cannot.
Both health coaches and nutritionists use action plans and motivations to achieve results, Pilin adds, but they differ in their education and overall approach. "For starters, a nutritionist is someone who typically has studied nutrition through a four-year degree program and offers advice specifically around nutrition," she explains. "On the other hand, a certified health coach is more holistic and offers a much wider range of support."
A health coach looks at the whole person (body, mind, spirit) and shows up as a partner, whereas RDs may take more of an expert role. Though food does play a role, health coaches also consider lifestyle factors, such as movement and stress management. Ultimately, they help clients make small, sustainable shifts in their daily routines that both achieve the desired result and help them feel their best, Pilin says.
Another distinction is that RDs can prescribe dietary interventions and recommend supplements. Health coaches don't prescribe medication, diagnose patients, or interpret lab results.
What makes a good health coach?
Good health coaches keep the individual needs of a client in mind. "They understand there's no 'one-size-fit-all' and can encourage accountability and motivation through their depth of knowledge," Pilin says.
They also never stop learning. "It's important that a health coach continues to educate themselves and stay on top of the science in their field," registered dietitian Jess Cording, M.S., R.D., CDN previously told mindbbodygreen. In order to extend helpful advice and energy to their clients, Cording says health coaches should continue prioritizing their own health and self-care as well.
"To determine whether health coaching is a good fit for you, think about what you really want to do and how well that training can prepare you for that," she recommends. Consider which aspects of the job appeal to you and which don't. Write down your responses, and weigh the various pros and cons.
Reaching out to other health coaches and gaining insight into their day-to-day responsibilities could also be helpful.
Frequently Asked Questions
Where do health coaches work?
Health coaches can start their own 1:1 coaching business or be employed by institutions like hospitals, gyms, or clinics to give holistic health guidance to clients.
Can you make good money as a health coach?
Yes. Certified health coaches can expect to make $62,000 to $102,000+ a year depending on their experience.
Is becoming a certified health coach worth it?
Yes. Taking the extra step to become certified by the NBHWC, the main regulatory body for health coaches, increases your credibility and makes it easier to find a job as a health coach and/or book your own clients.
Is it hard to get clients as a health coach?
It's likely easier than you think to find health coaching clients, since the field is becoming so much more in-demand. The global health coach market is projected to reach nearly $28 billion by 2030 (compared to $13.6 billion in 2020). One survey found that 60% of Americans want a health coach but 80% of them have never been offered such as service. If you'd rather not be responsible for finding your own clients, you can also get a job as an on-staff coach in a hospital, clinic, or functional medicine setting.
What is the average age of a health coach?
The average age of a health coach is 42 years old, according to Zippia data. Health coaching is also a popular post-retirement career, and it can be great for remote workers too.
If the idea of helping people along in their journey towards better health appeals to you, you may want to consider becoming a health coach. Ready to take the leap? Here are the year's best health coaching programs for receiving your training.
Abby Moore is an editorial operations manager at mindbodygreen. She earned a B.A. in Journalism from The University of Texas at Austin and has previously written for Tribeza magazine. She has covered topics ranging from regenerative agriculture to celebrity entrepreneurship. Moore worked on the copywriting and marketing team at Siete Family Foods before moving to New York.