How to Become a Health Coach

Health coach with a nursing background consulting with client on better eating habits.

Health coaches (HCs) are client/patient advocates, forming ongoing, collaborative relationships with people to help improve their lifestyles for the better. These health specialists educate people on how to make healthier food choices (like what and when to eat) as well as how to become more physically active.

But, that’s not all – this advocacy goes beyond fitness and nutrition, into the realm of behavioral modifications relating to sleep, stress management, drinking and smoking.

Requirements

Currently, due to no state or national accrediting organization governing the practice of health coaching, there is no standardized set of education or licensure requirements to become a health coach. Subsequently, it’s largely up to the employer to establish these requirements – which can vary widely.

All else being equal, there are several recognized health coaching certifications available that can better qualify you over others.

3 Steps to Becoming a Health Coach

Overall, most health coaches employed today have completed the following three basic steps:

Step 1: Earn a Degree

The majority of employers are looking to hire HCs that hold at least a bachelor’s degree in a health-related subject. You do not necessarily need a clinical degree in nursing or dietetics, although some employers do prefer or require those with formal healthcare education.

Step 2: Establish Work Experience

At least 1-2 years of work experience in your respective field, whether public health, fitness or clinical related is typically required.

Step 3: Become Certified

Going through the process of becoming certified in health coaching shows potential employers you’ve dedicated yourself to this role and are qualified to perform related duties as outlined in the job description. Most organizations granting HC certifications require you to have a degree, clinical background, or considerable work experience in health & fitness in order to sit for their exam.

As a general rule of thumb, the more education, experience and credentials you have, the better your chances of being hired and earning a higher pay. Having experience in the healthcare or fitness fields and/or a degree in any health-related subject along with being a certified coach will help you greatly.

Though to reiterate, there isn’t one officially defined certificate, degree or license required to practice health coaching.

Do You Need to Have a Clinical Background?

It depends.

Whether or not having a clinical background matters, really depends on the employer and how they define or what they require of the role. Some positions require you to be a registered nurse (RN) or registered dietitian (RD), yet others require a bachelor’s degree in a health-related major and health coach certification to be qualified.

If you have a fitness background, but no clinical experience, you may consider offering health coaching services in addition to fitness training. In this case, your earning potential is basically limited by your ability to acquire new clients and maintain your current book.

Work Settings

Most employment opportunities are in the healthcare sector with health insurance companies, health & wellness solution businesses, physician groups/practices and occupational health departments of hospitals. It’s common for HCs to be contracted on an hourly basis, although salaried positions do exist.

Those with an entrepreneurial spirit can also form their own consulting business, much like some registered dietitians and personal trainers do, and work for themselves recruiting and managing their own clientele.

The Health Solutions Boom

As seen with the rise of corporate wellness programs since the 2000s, companies want healthier employees to increase productivity and lessen health insurance claims, which explains why the health coaching role has become so utilized in the health sector.

With the recent changes to our nation’s healthcare system, commercial insurance companies are encouraging and covering health counseling and fitness training more extensively than ever before. A win-win for payor, employer and employee/insured.

And of course, with Medicare and Medicaid programs also providing work opportunities by offering one-on-one coaching services, health coaches win out as well!

Example of Health Coach Employers

Insurance Companies

  • Aetna
  • Blue Cross Blue Shield
  • Cigna
  • Humana
  • UnitedHealth Group

Health & Wellness Solution Providers

  • ActiveHealth Management
  • American Specialty Health
  • EngagementHealth
  • Healthways
  • Health Dialog
  • Nurtur Health
  • Provant Health
  • Quantum Health
  • WellCall

Digital Health: A New Wave

Digital health management and therapeutics companies are now becoming established and breaking ground in the healthcare industry. Expect these new and innovative businesses to create job openings for HCs. San Francisco-based Omada Health is an example of one such company employing HCs.

Duties

A large part of what health coaches do is developing and implementing weight and stress management plans based around increased physical activity, proper nutrition and healthy lifestyle changes. They evaluate their client’s current habits and create highly personalized goals and action plans based upon their specific needs.

For example, they can work with their clients to develop improved nutrition and eating habits, especially for those requiring stricter adherence to nutritional guidelines due to conditions such as diabetes, heart disease, or gastrointestinal complications like celiac disease, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) or Crohn’s disease.

Again, it doesn’t just stop there. In educating clients on how to go about making the necessary dietary changes, the health coach also provides guidance for other behavioral changes, such as stress management, where they would introduce and advocate ways to manage/relieve stress such as through meditation or yoga.


At the root of what an HC does, it’s really about addressing disease and disease risk, at the same time bringing attention to how all facets of health need to be positively balanced, then facilitating the changes that need to be made with close management.

HCs typically make themselves very accessible to their patients/clients through in-person, phone, text message, and email communications. For example, they may go food shopping with their clients to teach them on-the-spot how to make healthier food choices. They also may assist them at the gym (if the HC has a fitness background), or hold a collaborative meeting with a personal trainer on how to work with the client in developing a personalized plan, which once developed, the coach will help keep them motivated through ongoing encouragement and goal-tracking.

Salary

As of 2016, the nationwide average salary for “health coaches” is around $41,000 according to Indeed.com. A search for “certified health coach”, however, returns a nationwide average salary figure of $68,000. This difference stresses the importance of certification, although it’s important to note the greater pay associated with certified HCs may also involve clinical background or graduate level education requirements and more job responsibilities.

Again, in reality, most HCs work on an hourly basis (as opposed to being salaried) and can make anywhere between $50 – $200 per hour, more so in the higher range if you’re a licensed medical or allied health professional.

Job Outlook

As the nation becomes more and more health conscious, there is a large push towards making lifestyle changes that promote long term health and well-being. This increased awareness from workplaces, both commercial and non-commercial health insurance organizations, clinical professionals and the general public that overall lifestyle change is necessary for improved health has resulted in the expansion of need for health and wellness coaches.

While there is no official job growth rate specifically outlined for Health Coaches, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts Health Educators – who share some similar job duties and workplaces – to experience a 13% percent increase in employment opportunities from 2014-2024.

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