What is a health coach? 5 skills you need to break into the field

It’s a career path that is incredibly varied, too. You can focus on weight loss, strength training, or nutrition, or specialize in a medical condition or spiritual practice—or a mix of any. You can join a burgeoning healthtech startup, or own your own business. You can cater to a wide demographic, or assist a specific age or wellness group.


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Whatever path you choose, you get to help people build happier, healthier, and more fulfilling lives. That, in turn, can make going into work every day exciting and gratifying for you.

You might be wondering: Isn’t a health coach the same thing as a personal trainer? We’ll explain the differences between the two, and the job requirements of the former.

What is a health coach? 

A health coach facilitates and empowers individuals to achieve their personal health and wellness goals through behavior changes, lifestyle changes, and self-discovery, says Christina Corsetty, a National Board Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) and the founder of Balanced and Renewed You Wellness Coaching.

Corsetty was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s and celiac disease in her 30s, which inspired her to assist others going through the same challenges. Her work, like that of all good health coaches, is a “client-centered process”: “We work with clients to help them to understand and just overcome the psychological barriers,” she says, adding, “It’s more than just physical.”

The typical day of a health coach might include meeting with clients in person or, over video to go over their goals, developing a program targeted to hit those goals, and checking in on and modifying said goals over time. 

Health coaches who run their own practices might also spend a large chunk of their hours on administrative work, such as marketing, invoicing, writing up client reports, and staying updated on advances in the field. “If you’re lucky enough to be partnered with a doctor in whatever practice you’re working with, then you’re communicating with them about the client’s or patient’s progress,” adds William Merrick, an NBC-HWC at healthtech company Optispan, who also takes on clients on his own from time to time.

Board-certified health coaches

A board-certified health coach is a trained health coach who might partner with a healthcare team, work in digital health, or assist clients through a community program or small business. They have completed skills-based learning and logged hours that qualify them under the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching (NBHWC) to provide coaching to clients with internal or external health and wellness-related issues.

The NBHWC is one of the most reputable names in health coaching certification, mainly because it collaborates with the National Board of Medical Examiners, which oversees physician certification to ensure coaches meet a high standard of education, training, and professional decorum. Since the partnership launched in 2016, the NBHWC has graduated more than 100,000 health and wellness professionals. 

Not every health coach out there is board certified, however, the credential lends you more legitimacy in your practice. “I’m dealing with people’s lives. I’m dealing with their mental capacity,” Corsetty says, adding, “And being a part of something like the National Board and having those standards and ethics, it shows that I stand by that and I’m going to do what I can for the safety of the people I work with.”

On its website, the organization lists available programs at colleges, health institutes, and medical centers that certify students to apply for and take the NBHWC National Board Certification Exam. Requirements for the test include a certificate of completion, a practical skills assessment, and proof of coaching hours or work experience. If a participant passes, they are designated an NBC-HWC.

“As part of maintaining our NBC-HWC credentials, it is mandatory for us to engage in ongoing professional development by completing 36 hours of continuing education every three years,” Corsetty adds. “This requirement ensures that, as coaches, we remain at the forefront of health information and coaching trends, allowing us to provide our clients with the most current and practical support.”

What is the difference between a health coach and a personal trainer?

While personal trainers are focused primarily on the physical aspects of health and wellness—exercises, training plans, stretches, maybe even diets—health coaches take a more holistic approach. “We’re trained to understand the broad spectrum of factors that influence an individual’s health and wellbeing—so that’s including the physical, emotional, and spiritual aspects of the person,” Corsetty says. This might factor in sleep, mindfulness, diet, exercise and movement, medical history, or stress. 

Corsetty adds that health coaches who transitioned into the field, and find the most success in it, tend to come from backgrounds in nutrition, psychology, or nursing. A personal trainer, on the other hand, might have expertise in anatomy, physiology, or biomechanics.

What personal trainers and health coaches have in common, beyond some training and credentials under their belts, is the client-first mentality. Both tailor their services to each individual, and keep the person’s unique fitness levels, mental state, personal goals, and background at the forefront of their work. “It’s not about my input or what I think is best for the clients,” Corsetty says. “The client knows what’s best for themselves. I’m just the guide on the side.”

Personal trainers and health coaches also don’t work in isolation, and sometimes one might refer a client to the other. “I’m not going to be the person out there running with you or really providing that day-of motivation,” Merrick says. “I’m going to talk to them about what motivates you and how can we tap into that?”

“We’re both there for accountability, and we’re both there to help people feel better,” he adds.

What skills do you need to be a health coach?

In order to become a health coach, you should hone several or all of the following skills:

Motivational interviewing: You can’t change behavior without first understanding what drives it. Motivational interviewing gets to the heart of a client’s motives and encourages them to take steps toward finding and leveraging them. “It’s up to them internally to decide what they want for themselves. External motivation doesn’t last,” Corsetty says.

Active listening: In order to create a plan that actually gets results, health coaches must be acutely attuned to the wants, needs, and hurdles of each client—and they’re best able to do this when they really listen to and process what they’re being told.

Empathy: Health coaches who can empathize with where their clients are coming from are able to build a lasting bond built on trust and respect. This skill is especially important for working with clients dealing with unique situations, such as a chronic illness, mental health issues, or addiction.

Goal setting: SMART (Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Relevant, and Time-based) goals are a health coach’s secret weapon. But coaches also have to know how to break up large goals a client may have (such as losing weight or running a marathon) into smaller, more manageable ones, and then be able to instill confidence in the client in tackling them. “That’s the hardest part, is getting them to believe in themselves and to see that it’s possible,” Corsetty says.

General knowledge in health and wellness: If you’re completely new to the field or making a drastic career change, getting some training in health and wellness can inform where you want to specialize, and better prepare you for the NBC-HWC exam. Corsetty, for example, came from a background in public health with a master’s degree in health and wellness coaching from the Maryland University of Integrative Health. 

Merrick used to be a licensed massage therapist and fitness instructor, and supplemented his certification with training through the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and Wild Health’s precision medicine fellowship. Other reputable options, Merrick says, include Mayo Clinic’s wellness coach training program and the Institute for Functional Medicine. 

You can also consider taking a class or set of courses in motivational interviewing, the philosophies of coaching, body systems, or specific health conditions such as diabetes or addiction.

The takeaway

Health coaches are people’s guides through overcoming or managing illness, pain, mental blocks, and other health-related problems. Personal trainers are a niche category within health coaching targeting mostly physical issues and opportunities. Health coaching requires empathy and a strong ability to listen and set goals—skills you can build through certifications and training programs.

“It’s fun. It’s very dynamic. The information is always changing. So if you also identify as a lifelong learner, this could be a really good choice for you,” Merrick says about the benefits of pursuing a career in health coaching. 

Of course, the job isn’t without its challenges. He cites potentially long or weird working hours—evenings or weekends, for example—and difficulty finding clients when self-employed as potential cons. It’s also not as lucrative or in demand as fields such as physical or occupational therapy.

But, Merrick adds, “It can be really rewarding when you see the difference that you can make in someone’s life. It’s hard to put a monetary value on that.”

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