Consumers no longer view “wellness” simply as “improved fitness and nutrition,” but, instead, as a much broader and holistic path—one that encompasses better long-term health management, mental health (specifically, mindfulness), and sleep.
Enter, health coaches.
Wait. “Health coaches”? Well, in case you were wondering, yes. Health coaches aren’t quite the same thing as personal trainers. But how do these two professions differ, exactly? And are there any overlaps between the two at all? Find answers below so you can determine the best career path for yourself in the health and wellness industry.
What Does a Health Coach Do?
A health coach helps clients improve their overall well-being and health by equipping them with the necessary knowledge of sound nutrition principles and lifestyle habits.
Health coaches guide clients through building self-care skills, habits, and healthy behaviors crucial for optimal wellness. As a result, they can help with a wide variety of health issues—from managing chronic conditions to tobacco cessation, from improving diet and exercise to adjusting to a life-altering health event (e.g., a diabetes diagnosis).
In other words, health coaches act as a client’s personal health “cheerleader”; they help a client find the tools they need to make better lifestyle choices and achieve their health goals.
What Does a Personal Trainer Do?
A personal trainer works with clients to achieve fitness-related goals (e.g., weight loss, improved body composition, and enhanced athletic performance).
They design fitness programs, demonstrate proper exercise execution, assess progress, and adjust training plans as needed. Depending on a personal trainer’s specific certification, they may also construct meal plans and dietary guidelines with reference to MyPlate, a government-recommended revision of the Food Pyramid.
Key Differences Between a Health Coach and a Personal Trainer
Scope of Practice
Right away, the key difference between a health coach and a personal trainer becomes clear.
A personal trainer’s scope of practice is more limited and better defined than a health coach's. Personal training is primarily about fitness—creating well-designed workout plans, instructing clients on exercise form, and training clients in a way that optimizes their athletic performance.
On the contrary, a health coach has a much wider range of issues to tackle, such as stress management, sleep hygiene, and various lifestyle habits (e.g., alcohol and nicotine use).
That said, there is an important disclaimer: The scope of practice for a health coach does have limits.
Ultimately, health coaches don't have the same training and certifications as medical professionals—like doctors, psychiatrists, or dietitians.
That means they cannot diagnose a medical condition (e.g., general anxiety disorder) or attempt to treat it. Note: These limitations apply to personal trainers, too.
While personal trainers’ limited scope of practice may appear like a con, it isn’t necessarily so. For what they lack in scope coverage, personal trainers make up with their depth of knowledge as fitness specialists. What does that mean?
To illustrate: Imagine a client is looking to build muscle mass.
While a health coach could guide the client into staying consistent with their workout sessions, they wouldn't necessarily know about what’s needed for maximal hypertrophy.
Specifically, a health coaching certification doesn’t cover concepts like muscle anatomy, muscular adaptations in response to training, and progressive overload—foundations essential to a well-designed “hypertrophy workout program.”
The same applies across all fitness goals, be it improved strength, cardiovascular fitness, or even power.
Another difference between health coaches and personal trainers would be their work environment. In general, health coaches conduct their sessions remotely (by phone or through web-conferencing tools).
This contrasts with personal trainers, who usually work with clients physically in a gym or any other type of fitness facility setting.
Of course, it’s worth noting that personal trainers can also conduct their sessions online, as has been demonstrated by the pandemic.
But while the effectiveness of remote personal training has been strongly contested (especially for clients new to fitness), that of health coaching has been proven. Research shows health coaching to be equally effective when conducted remotely as face-to-face coaching.
Why? One of the main reasons for this is that it’s often challenging for a personal trainer to ensure proper exercise form remotely.
This could be due to a limited viewing angle (e.g., the camera only captures a client’s side profile) or a misunderstanding of verbal coaching cues (some clients may “get” muscle activation better when lightly tapped on that region).
Bottom line? While a health coach could work with anyone remotely, a personal trainer likely must meet with a client face-to-face in a fitness facility—especially if they have no prior experience working out.
Similarities Between a Health Coach and a Personal Trainer
At this point, you may think of health coaches and personal trainers as like chalk and cheese, so fundamentally different that similarities are impossible. So, it might surprise you to learn that the two professions share plenty of common characteristics.
Level of Regulation
Neither personal trainers nor health coaches need a certification, license, or specific education to use these titles legally. That means anyone could claim that they’re a personal trainer and/or health coach—and charge clients for their services.
Still, it’s unlikely for those without a recognized certification to enjoy a successful career. Many gyms require their trainers to be certified by a reputable training provider.
Plus, clients would also be wary about having someone coach them—be it in the capacity of a health coach or personal trainer—without supporting credentials.
And thankfully, while legal regulations are not stringent, both professions are now known to uphold a unified code of ethics, education, research, and credentials aimed at standardizing training and certification for health coaches and personal trainers:
- Health coaches: In 2016, the National Board of Health and Wellness Coaches (NBHWC) joined forces with the National Board of Medical Examiners (the certifying body that licenses physicians) and approved more than eighty health and wellness coach training programs throughout the United States. FYI: AFPA’s health coach programs are recognized by the NBHWC.
- Personal trainers: A key characteristic of quality personal training courses is accreditation from the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), a recognized third-party agency that accredits certification programs that meet and comply with its standards. AFPA’s personal training programs are all NASM-accredited.
Neither Are Medical Professionals
Here's a point touched on previously but bears repeating (and elaboration): Neither health coaches nor personal trainers are medical professionals.
Once again, this means they cannot diagnose medical conditions or treat them, interpret medical test results, recommend supplements, or even prescribe meal plans (i.e., mandate that a client must follow a particular way of eating).
Whenever necessary, both professions must refer their clients to the relevant medical professionals instead. Here are examples of situations that call for “external” help:
- Working through traumatic experiences: A situation best dealt with by a post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) psychiatrist.
- Diagnosing and/or treating nutrient deficiencies: Best addressed by doctors and dietitians who can order blood tests and develop a suitable treatment plan. Once again, health coaches and personal trainers cannot diagnose or treat medical conditions.
- Improving sleep quality with supplements: Only healthcare providers can prescribe patients "sleep-promoting" supplements, like melatonin or L-theanine. The furthest health coaches and personal trainers can go would be recommending tips for better sleep hygiene (e.g., avoiding screen time before bedtime and keeping the bedroom cool)—nothing more.
A Partner Relationship that's Centered Around Behavioral Change
Another critical similarity between health coaches and personal trainers lies in the nature of the coach-client relationship. It's a type of partnership designed to take the client through a step-by-step process of changing their lives for the better.
Neither profession uses a one-size-fits-all approach to clients.
Instead, all clients will typically go through an “onboarding” session, where they’ll have to fill out a health history, give the coach an idea of where they currently stand (fitness level for the personal trainer, current lifestyle habits for the health coach), and what, exactly, they’re hoping to achieve through coaching.
Health coaches and personal trainers will then take all these factors (i.e., client’s lifestyle, needs, and preferences) into consideration when designing coaching sessions.
As a result, both professions will need to be familiar with (and understand how to apply) behavioral change knowledge:
- Motivational interviewing: A key technique utilized by coaches where they ask open-ended questions intended to help clients elicit their own reasons for change. Effective motivational interviewing helps clients verbalize barriers and other factors out of their control yet impacting their health. In turn, this initiates a discussion about managing these barriers, potentially paving the way toward the adoption of various health-promoting behaviors (that make sense for them).
- Health behavior change frameworks: A client’s health behavior results from a complex process of decisions, habits, mental state, social support, historical experiences with discrimination, access to healthcare, trauma, culture, economic access, amongst others. Understanding the two popular behavior change theories—the Health Belief Model (HBM) and the Transtheoretical Model (TTM)—provides a coach with valuable insights into a client's attitudes and beliefs toward health behaviors along with how clients could be better guided into changing.
- Increasing client’s sense of self-efficacy: Self-efficacy refers to an individual’s confidence in their ability to achieve a goal (i.e., the desired outcome). Research shows people who experience high self-efficacy set higher goals and put more effort into changing behavior. As such, both health coaches and personal trainers should focus their efforts on increasing a client’s self-efficacy levels (e.g., with goal-setting and positive psychology).
Outcome of Coaching
And what is the final common thread between the work of health coaches and personal trainers? Their goal for a client.
At the end of the day, both professions want their client to feel empowered—and to be able to understand the tidal wave of health and wellness information out there.
A client should come out of the coaching sessions with a clearer idea of the next step to take. Simply put, they should feel like you have just helped them find the balance they needed for better health.
Different as they may appear, personal trainers and health coaches play complementary roles.
For instance, a health coach dealing with a client wishing to get in better shape may refer them to a personal trainer. A personal trainer with a client complaining about feeling overwhelmed by daily stressors, on the other hand, may refer them to a health coach.
That said, it’s worth noting that a personal trainer could also be a health coach—and vice versa.
After all, many of the skills you have developed as a personal trainer are transferable and relevant in a health coach role. In addition to an expanded client base, being certified in both will also offer you the opportunity to support clients’ wellness in a multifaceted way.
Personal trainers who earn their health coaching certification acquire the broader knowledge necessary for the daily management of chronic conditions, for example.
In contrast, a health coach equipped with personal training knowledge could give actionable tips on how, exactly, a client could get more active (instead of general recommendations like “work out three times weekly”).
Bottom line? Getting certified in both health coaching and personal training could be one of the most rewarding moves a health and wellness professional could make. The time, money, and effort you put into the process will be well worth it.
Article Categories: Fitness, Personal Training, & Exercise Science