The New Slim-Down Secrets?

A growing army of health 'coaches' could bring success — or waste your money. What to know now.

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Way back when, the idea of a life coach seemed bizarre. Paying someone to cheer you on to professional and personal success? Wasn't that what friends did absolutely free? Then smart people all around you decided to see one (a few probably became one) and the life coaching industry was born. So what's the hot new hired helper? A health coach. Sort of a cross between a personal trainer and a "Yay, you!" cheerleader, these experts monitor your meals, workouts, and daily habits, helping you figure out how to change unhealthy behaviors. Imagine a BFF who actually cares about your cookie addiction and expertly guides you toward better choices. That's a health coach — if you find a good one.

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While the specialty has existed on the fringes for decades, health coaching only recently exploded in popularity. The National Consortium for Credentialing Health & Wellness Coaches (NCCHWC) estimates that of the roughly 30,000 practicing coaches in the U.S. right now, 10,000 have become certified in the past five years. "It's one of the fastest growing professions in the health and wellness industry," says Meg Jordan, PhD, RN, co-president of the National Wellness Institute. Unsurprisingly, coaches are frequently hired to help clients lose weight, though they often work with you to exercise, reduce stress, and more.

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There's a key reason for the surge: Health coaches can pick up where other pros in your life leave off. "A doctor might hand you a pamphlet, but it's usually not knowledge people lack," says Janelle Coughlin, PhD, associate director of the Center for Behavior and Health at Johns Hopkins Medicine. "It's support, accountability, and feedback — things a physician may not have the time or training to provide."

Regina Camplin, 40, of Winter Park, FL, for instance, wanted to work out consistently and lose 35 pounds of pregnancy weight she'd gained a few years ago. She doubted that a personal trainer session once or twice a week would do the trick. Instead, she wanted someone who could help her determine how to fit gym visits into her busy days (she's part owner of an advertising agency) and avoid the self-sabotage of high-calorie convenience foods. "I needed to rethink how I fueled myself as I got stronger," she says. So she chose a coach who's also a trainer, and they came up with ideas that didn't require major life overhauls, like eating better before and after workouts. Camplin wasn't handed a list of foods; her coach helped her pick what she'd actually buy, pack, and eat on the run. Their plan helped her drop the weight in about six months and keep it off.

That's a typical success story, but don't Google "hire a health coach" just yet. Having your hand held or your progress monitored isn't right for everyone. And as with many emerging fields, coaching is totally unregulated. Some people undergo years of training; others take shortcuts. Anyone can complete a quickie course, create a website, call herself a coach, and ask for about $75 to $100 a session (some even charge $500).

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Read on for the insider info you need before you sign on with any coach, plus a realistic picture of what even the best of them can and can't do for you. Doubtful? Wary? We get it, so we've pulled together coaches' top change-making secrets to try for yourself.

The Right Mentor for Your Money

Coaches might learn similar techniques, but the chasm between top-notch certifications and those from a coach mill is so wide, even the industry is concerned. To ensure that coaches master certain basics, the NCCHWC will begin rolling out its own national certification program next year. Until it starts minting coaches, though (and even after that point), use these strategies to home in on someone who does more than just collect your cash.

Check her schooling.

Ask where a prospective health coach got her training; the answers range from short online courses to rigorous two-year options. Programs may be specialized: Some are geared to fitness professionals who want to study behavior change and add health coaching to their repertoire. (The reputable American Council on Exercise [ACE] offers one.) Others provide advanced instruction, often for people who already have health care degrees, such as nurses, physical therapists, or even MD's (Duke Integrative Health Coaching, for example). Watch out for coaches with zero bona fides other than that they really "love nutrition and fitness." Make sure they have actual schooling, then go to that program's website and eyeball the curriculum. Be skeptical if the primary focus is on how students can market themselves or how "easy" it is to become a coach and earn big money.

Beware those selling you a detox program…

or supplements, shakes, or bars. Good coaches may point you to healthier food choices, but if purchases are part of the deal, don't bite. Same with coaches who aren't registered dietitians but who offer detailed eating plans — they're not trained for that, says certified dietitian and culinary nutritionist Stefanie Sacks, CNS. Also stay away from those pushing extreme eating plans — they may not be medically appropriate for you.

Make sure they're not getting everything from a box.

Some programs give graduates templates and to-do lists, so that all the coach has to do is print handouts and parrot encouraging messages. Ask a coach to tell you about her greatest successes. If it sounds like she tends to take the same steps and offer the same advice to everyone, move on. You won't get the tailoring you need (and pay for).

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Look for a personality click.

Your coach can boast impeccable credentials and a long roster of happy clients, but none of that matters if you don't have good chemistry together. You should feel that she genuinely understands and cares about your situation, says Margaret Moore, co-founder of Wellcoaches Corporation, a training program connected to the American College of Sports Medicine. Coaches who aren't willing to speak with you for 20 minutes for free, says ACE-certified health coach Lee Jordan, "likely don't have the caring spirit necessary to give excellent support." When you hang up the phone, check that you feel energized, not obligated. Because if a health coach is what you're after, there are thousands more to choose from.

Coaches' Best Tips, Yours for Free

1. Raise Your Awareness

"A lot of us are disconnected from what goes into our mouths. We're sitting there and all of a sudden a whole sleeve of cookies is gone," says American Council on Exercise-certified coach Lee Jordan. To help his clients be more self-aware, he has them text him a picture of every single thing they eat — healthy or not. Then, he helps them react constructively when the photos show slipups. Mapping out the rest of the good choices you can make in a day keeps you from dwelling on regret, says Jordan, who has coached numerous clients through losing more than 100 pounds. Try the photo trick for yourself. Review the snapshots at least once a day to find meal, snack, or "just one more" habits you can tweak.

2. Set Goals the Right Way

Health coaches, like personal trainers and sports coaches, generally guide you to set SMART goals (stands for specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and time-bound, meaning you give yourself a deadline). Say you want to be healthier. You have to identify exactly what that means at this moment (exercising more, for example); determine the times (you'll get on the elliptical Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays during the Today show and take a brisk, after-dinner dog walk each night, for example); set benchmarks (work up to 15- minute sessions on the elliptical and 15- minute walks); and designate a deadline (you'll be able to complete that 5K charity walk next spring). Don't just keep goals in your head. Research has shown that writing them down helps make them happen.

3. Uncover What Motivates You

Using a technique known as motivational interviewing, coaches ask open-ended questions (not granular ones, like "How much weight do you want to lose?") to pinpoint what really lights a fire under you. Try asking yourself these coach favorites:

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  • What about weight loss is important to me?
  • What obstacles are in my way? How might I remove them?
  • What healthy changes could I realistically make this week?
  • How ready am I to make the changes I want, and what could take me one step closer to seeing that they really happen?

Try not to judge yourself as you answer. If the only step you can take today is a small one, don't criticize it, just do it.

This story originally appeared in the November 2015 issue of Dr. Oz The Good Life.

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