Weight Loss Advice
More dieters are getting help from life coaches in their efforts to shed pounds.
by Martha Spizziri
Eileen Caroscio of Burke, Virginia did what many people do when she decided to slim down—she set a specific target for her desired weight. However, Caroscio, 53, soon realized that rigid goal was actually undermining her success. She found that a more helpful objective would be to choose healthy food and exercise options. She ultimately achieved a weight very close to her original target.
Caroscio’s success came with the help of a coach—not of the sports variety, but a life coach. Life coaches help clients find out what motivates them. They may also help clients identify underlying beliefs that hinder their efforts and brainstorm ways to deal with obstacles. The coach may use techniques such as visualization or affirmations. Whatever the method, the emphasis is on helping the client discover his or her own answers, says Teri-E Belf, MA, CAGS, MCC, a life coach since 1987.
“We’re in business to help clients increase awareness, and increase their responsibility, which is the ability to respond to the awareness,” says Belf, who practices from Reston, Virginia. In addition to coaching Caroscio to her weight loss about four years ago, Belf trained Caroscio to be a coach herself. Earlier, Caroscio had turned her inclination to help others into a nursing career. The coaching process with Belf exposed a habit that, however rooted in her good nature, was hurting Caroscio.
“People in my family like to cook, and they would make these wonderful meals,” Caroscio recalls. She would accept their offers of food because she was afraid of hurting their feelings. “Through the coaching I realized that I can still be friendly, but I can decline the food, too. I’m a smart person,” says Caroscio, CSC, RN, MSN, “but I did not get those clear insights or ‘ahas’ until working with the coaching process.”
Ultimately, Caroscio lost about 20 pounds, although it took longer than she wanted—close to a year. For a while she kept losing, then gaining again as she figured everything out. “The good thing is, I’m in a better place in terms of health and tranquility,” she says.
When it comes to counseling patients regarding weight loss, many doctors are better at delivering medical services than advice, says Edward M. Phillips, MD, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School’s Department of Physical Medicine and Rehabilitation. “We’re not trained as coaches, and there’s a specific skill set,” Phillips says. Those skills include asking open-ended questions and knowing how to listen. As someone trained in those areas, a coach can work with doctors, therapists or nutritionists.
Phillips is also the director of the Harvard-affiliated Institute of Lifestyle Medicine (www.instituteoflifestylemedicine.org), part of whose mission is to teach health professionals to better assist patients with diet and other healthy lifestyle changes. Indeed, as research points to signs that coaching can increase the chances of success in making such changes, established medical centers and hospitals are starting to offer coaching services. In addition, a new specialty called wellness coaching has emerged.
The Mayo Clinic in Rochester, Minnesota (www.mayoclinic.org), makes wellness coaches available at its Dan Abraham Healthy Living Center. The center serves people affiliated with the clinic—employees and their spouses, retired employees and students. Duke University’s integrative medicine center (www.dukeintegrativemedicine.org) provides health coaching services and trains coaches. (Health coaching is similar to wellness coaching, says Phillips, but is geared toward helping people with medical conditions, whereas a healthy person interested in making lifestyle changes could consult a wellness coach.)
“To date there have not been the definitive studies,” notes Phillips. But he says that more research is being done. He works with the Institute of Coaching, a Harvard-affiliated organization established last year, to try to design studies that will be more definitive. There’s also a move to create certification and unified standards for wellness coaches.
The goal of coaching is not just to help with the immediate problem, but to give the client skills and insights to take with him. “There is research out there showing that it helps sustain behavior change for people over the long term,” says Denise Daniels, a Certified Wellness Coach at the Healthy Living Center. “What wellness coaching does is focusing on not having the coach be an expert, but having the person go through a process to help them use their strength, and figure out their wellness vision. There’s no one set blueprint for everybody.”
Jane Getting, PA-C, a physician’s assistant in general internal medicine at the Mayo Clinic, wanted to lose enough weight to get back into her business suits. She had tried unsuccessfully for a year. “I exercised regularly five or more days per week for an hour or more,” Getting says. “I thought I was watching how much I ate, and I ate pretty healthy, but you never do as good of a job as you think you are.”
She tried Weight Watchers, but her work schedule made it difficult to get to meetings consistently. So she decided to try the coaching at the clinic’s Healthy Living Center, where she worked with Daniels. “It automatically made me verbalize, which forced me to acknowledge circumstances,” Getting says. “She reiterated what I was saying so you can hear what you’re saying from somebody else’s perspective. One time I said something about not deserving something, and she asked me, ‘Do you really mean to say that word?’ In reality, I didn’t. I wanted to say it wasn’t necessary. Notice the connotation between those two words—night and day. It’s all about what you do up in your head. The mental barrier is probably the biggest barrier.” After 10 weeks of coaching, Getting says, she has lost at least 15 pounds and can fit into most of her suits.
Tina Kraus, another coach who was a client of Belf’s, was able to get in shape and ultimately run a marathon—a goal she had years ago, but given up on after she was hit by a car. (She suffered severe injuries including a cracked coccyx, or tailbone, but had no residual effects.) Kraus says her coaching ultimately aimed for a goal far beyond weight loss.
“What I learned and loved was that it was more holistic,” explains Kraus. “It wasn’t just ‘I want to lose 5 pounds’ or ‘I want to be healthy,’ but ‘How does that tie in with the rest of my life?’ Had I not gone through the process of looking at what I wanted, I would not have run a marathon.”
Kraus ran the marathon in October 2007 and continues to run two to three miles a couple of times a week. She also plans to train for a triathlon. She says she has hovered between her post-marathon size 10 and a size 12—but hasn’t gone back up to her pre-marathon size 14.
How to Find the Right Life Coach
Coaches tend to be fairly flexible about how they provide their services, which can be a real help to people with busy schedules. Options include phone coaching, group coaching, or even coaching via email. Group coaching is less expensive than individual, and the group offers a built-in support system; phone coaching is easier to fit in, since the client doesn’t have to spend time getting to the coach’s office.
To find a life coach, the best bet is to look for someone who has had training with one of the many coaching associations that exist; the oldest is the International Coach Federation (www.coachfederation.org ). To find a good wellness coach, Edward Phillips, MD recommends looking for someone with training from a recognized program, such as the Duke Integrative Medicine, the Institute of Coaching (www.instituteofcoaching.org ) or Wellcoaches (www.wellcoaches.com). He also recommends looking for a coach with some type of health training; ideally the organization should offer a choice of a few different coaches and let you speak with each one to ensure a good “fit.” Similarly, Belf says that she gives clients a free meeting in order to assess whether coaching is appropriate for their needs.