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The Education You Need to Become a Health Coach

Health coaching programs cater to a variety of students, from established professionals to those entering the healthcare profession for the first time.

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woman with headphones working on laptop

Many aspiring health coaches already have a professional background in another field, including healthcare. But no matter how you come to the career—with a college degree, related wellness training, or a high school education—there are health coach training programs for your qualifications.

Here’s a look at various health coach programs to help you determine which educational pathway is right for you.

Choosing a Program

Most health coaching programs are online and bestow a certificate upon completion. As you look at programs, you’ll want to consider admission requirements, your career goals, and where you want to work. The wide variety of programs is a plus, but there’s not one central national accrediting body that provides accreditation specifically for health coaching programs, and there are no national education, licensing, or certification requirements to start working as a health coach.

This means you’ll need to look closely at programs to determine if they provide the training for the career you want to pursue.

You’ll find health coaching programs offered by:

  • Private health coaching schools
  • Professional organizations
  • Community colleges
  • Four-year colleges and universities

When considering a program, you’ll want to start by finding out whether you can meet admission requirements. Next, look for these elements:

Science-based curriculum


Science-based curriculum includes training that’s based on proven coaching strategies, which will prepare you to provide the best possible services to your clients.

Live coaching instruction


Interactive and live coaching instruction can help you learn coaching processes. This can take place in online classes or in a classroom.

Practice coaching sessions


If you’re new to coaching, you’ll benefit from feedback as you learn coaching techniques and skills.

Instruction on health and wellness


While you won’t be diagnosing or treating clients, you’ll need a basic understanding of nutrition and exercise and common chronic conditions like diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity.

When you look at programs, also factor in your goals and interests.

“There are definitely programs that spend more time focusing on functional (holistic, personalized) medicine versus the science of health and wellness coaching and the brain, while other programs focus more on nutrition,” says Leigh-Ann M. Webster, NBC-HWC, executive director of the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching. “It really depends on what a person wants, what they want their focus to be, where they’re headed in their life, and what’s interesting to them.”

Four Key Skills for a Successful Health Coach

Whether you start your training with previous healthcare experience or simply a passion for helping others, a health coaching program can help you master the knowledge and skills you need to succeed in any environment.

While curriculum varies across programs, you should come away from a typical health coaching program with the beginnings of four key skills.

  • Active listening: This listening technique involves paying full attention to what a client is saying, observing their behavior and body language, avoiding interrupting them at all costs, and summarizing and reflecting on what you hear to confirm that you understand their message.
  • Motivational interviewing: Coaches use this collaborative technique to help clients resolve ambivalence and find the internal motivation they need to commit to change.
  • Positive psychology: This collaborative technique helps clients focus on positive behaviors and character strengths and build on them—instead of focusing on dysfunction and trying to fix what’s “broken.”
  • Change readiness: This concept is based on the idea that change occurs gradually in stages. A successful coach can recognize when a client is ready to change and support them as they progress through stages to achieve their goal. 

Educational Requirements

Health coaching programs offered by professional organizations and private schools generally fall into one of three categories based on admission requirements.

Training programs that cater only to licensed and credentialed healthcare professionals

Who this type of training program is good for

  • Clinical healthcare professionals such as nurses who want to include health coaching in their patient care and are qualified to provide medical guidance and advice

Focus

  • Content for healthcare workers with advanced knowledge and skills involving acute and chronic health conditions such as diabetes and heart disease
  • Use of evidence-based knowledge and practices in health coaching

Outcome

  • Prepares health coaches to work in a healthcare setting or as part of a patient’s healthcare team

Training programs that require a specific level of work experience, certification, or education in wellness or a related field

Who this type of program is good for

  • Certified lifestyle/nutrition/fitness coaches or professionals certified in related fields who want to add health coaching to their practice
  • Individuals with an associate degree or higher from an accredited college or university in nutrition, healthcare, exercise science, or a related field
  • Individuals who meet minimum requirements for work experience in nutrition, healthcare, exercise, or a related field

Focus

  • Skills to support clients in achieving their health and wellness goals
  • Coaching strategies

Outcome

  • Prepares students for roles as health coaches in the fitness industry, community settings, healthcare, or private practice

Training programs that don’t require prior work experience or training in wellness or a related field

Who this type of program is good for

  • Individuals whose highest level of education is a high school diploma or GED
  • Career changers looking for training that doesn’t require professional certification or a degree to enroll
  • Clinical or other healthcare professionals who want to apply health coaching training toward continuing education requirements

Focus

  • Basic information on nutrition and related health topics such as blood pressure and diabetes
  • Skills to work as a health coach
  • Coaching processes, ethics, and professional standards

Outcome

  • Prepares students for roles as health coaches in the fitness industry, community settings, or private practice, and provides a foundation for pursuing further education and certifications to build on their coaching skills

University and Community College Programs

In addition to private programs, health and wellness training programs are offered at many colleges and universities. Admission criteria vary widely, depending on whether the program is part of a bachelor’s or master’s education, or is offered as a postgraduate certificate program.

One advantage of taking a health coach program at a college or university is the opportunity to earn college credits, which you may be able to transfer toward completion of another program or degree at other accredited institutions.

Online Study and Time to Complete

Most health coach programs are online, and the amount of live interaction you have with your instructor and classmates varies by program. Some online programs will include live one-on-one interaction with your instructor, while in others you’ll study on your own and have periodic check-ins with your instructor.

An emphasis on online health coaching programs mirrors the trend toward virtual health coaching in the workplace.

Health coaching programs can take anywhere from six weeks to a year to complete. If your program emphasizes independent study, the completion time may depend on how quickly you work through the curriculum.

The emphasis on online health coaching programs mirrors the trend toward virtual health coaching in the workplace. This means that the confidence you gain by learning and communicating online can be valuable in your work. “There are many employment opportunities that go hand-in-hand with the virtual setting,” says Araceli De Leon, MS, an ACE-certified health coach and personal trainer. “You can work one-on-one combining the comfort of your client’s home and the convenience of your own workplace. You can even do group calls in a virtual setting if you have three or four clients who have the same goal and can share challenges and successes.”

Accreditation

Accreditation is a stamp of approval for a school or program’s education quality and standards. While there are no official accrediting organizations for health coach programs, some programs are accredited by these organizations:

If you’re taking a health coach training program at a college or university, look for institutional accreditation from one of six accrediting agencies approved by the U.S. Department of Education to ensure that any college credits you earn will be transferrable to other accredited institutions. You can verify an institution’s accreditation on a database maintained by the U.S. Department of Education.

Health Coach Credential

Most health coaching programs offer a certificate upon completion. But note that a certificate isn’t the same thing as certification.

Certification is a credential you can earn based on your expertise and experience in a field. It isn’t required for health coaches, but it could boost your career and your salary. To earn a certification, you must meet the eligibility requirements of the certifying organization and pass an exam to demonstrate your knowledge.

Health coaches can earn the National Board-Certified Health and Wellness Coach (NBC-HWC) credential, offered by the National Board for Health & Wellness Coaching in partnership with the National Board of Medical Examiners.

To qualify for the exam for this credential, you must:

  1. Complete an approved health coaching program
  2. Complete 50 health and wellness coaching sessions
  3. Have an associate degree or higher, or 4,000 hours of work experience in any field

With so many options and considerations in choosing a health coaching program, it’s important to do your research. In some cases, finding the information you need may be as easy as calling a school and speaking to an admissions counselor.

“I find that people in the health coaching field tend to be really great communicators, so when they’re picking up the phone for their program, they are definitely taking the time to communicate with prospective students,” Webster says.


anna giorgi

Written and Reported by:
Anna Giorgi
Contributing Writer

araceli deleon

With professional insight from:
Araceli De Leon, MS
ACE-certified Health Coach and Personal Trainer

leigh ann webster

Leigh-Ann M. Webster, NBC-HWC
Executive Director of the National Board for Health and Wellness Coaching