What does a health coach do? Where might you find one in Western North Carolina? And how do you find one best suited to your health needs?
WNC’s wellness industry is evolving, with an increasing number of self-care options. Health coaches help to bridge divides between traditional and alternative modalities. The world’s largest nutrition school, the Institute for Integrative Nutrition in New York City, defines a health coach as “a wellness authority and supportive mentor who motivates individuals to cultivate positive health choices.” That broad statement can be applied in a multitude of areas — from mental health care to physical exercise, diet, nutrition and more. These are all wellness fields where health coaches are found, and their respective areas of practice help to define their training and certification. Not every industry, however, requires a license to practice.
Many health coaches work as personal trainers, focusing on exercise as a significant component of health. Personal trainers are not required to have certification, professional training or even experience in North Carolina. Nevertheless, they have an important role in providing motivation and support for physical fitness.
Kevin Martin, co-owner of Plank Fitness, says he turned away from “big box” gyms and toward smaller, more personalized fitness studios where he could be more effective. “I’ve always had trouble with the title ‘personal trainer,’” he says in the upstairs physical therapy room of his two-story fitness studio near Biltmore Village. “I know lots of dudes doing that as a hobby, and that’s fine. Some people call themselves personal trainers just because they’re into fitness,” Martin continues.
“A health coach defines so many more pieces of this work, including the lifestyle aspect of healthy habits and how to integrate them into your life to take steps toward better health,” he says.
As a certified trainer through the American College of Sports Medicine, Martin began his studies as a pre-med student but then gravitated toward nutrition. He says he didn’t agree with the outdated Standard American Diet curriculum being taught in med school. As an avid cook, he began a personal chef business — cooking healthy, customized meals for families. He also began apprenticing alongside personal trainers in both the “big box” and small studio fitness facilities. After working for several years in Knoxville and Memphis, Tenn., he moved to Asheville and continued working as a trainer before opening Plank Fitness four years ago.
At Plank, the focus is on functional training and how best to use body weight rather than machines to build strength and ease for natural movement. One-on-one and semiprivate training sessions touch on diet and cardiovascular disease; a personalized plan with meal planning and diet feedback is offered as an additional service. The facility also houses a physical therapy room, and appointments can be made with the resident physical therapist as needed.
“A lot of our clients in their 50s and 60s are getting their movement back and changing what they’re capable of doing in everyday life,” Martin says. Unfortunately, he adds, “most people who start a new exercise program are thinking about changing something about their body aesthetically, like weight loss. If we can get them to focus on how well they move first, then that piece will come. That’s part of the health coaching approach of changing nutrition and other habits that leads to someone accomplishing what they truly want rather than looking to a quick fix.”
As the integrative health director at holistic mental health recovery center Cooper Riis for the past seven years, Katherine Wilson says the focus of her work is helping clients cultivate a more sustainable and holistic relationship with food. She began working as a natural food-focused chef and through that work saw the value in helping people understand how to read labels, cook their own food and filter through “pop culture nutrition information” to find a nutrient-dense and whole-foods diet that worked for them.
“One of my passions has been working with the gut and brain connection and looking at … diet and lifestyle changes [exercise, sleep, stress reduction]. I’m really focused on bio-individuality and meeting someone where they are. Some people are surprised when they come see me that I don’t have a standard set of yes’s and no’s,” she says.
Wilson works with clients in a health coaching capacity to help them get back to the basics of a healthy diet, removing processed foods and focusing on whole foods with higher nutrient content and fewer calories. She says a lot of her work in nutrition education is based on clients’ specific needs given their specific stage in life.
With a masters degree in holistic nutrition, Wilson says she receives referrals from doctors and therapists who recommend her as a resource after people have tried the Standard American Diet model and found it didn’t work for them. She notes, “I think people are often looking for a more holistic, natural way to approach diabetes management, cholesterol, and illnesses and want to look at a food-based nutritional approach to that.”
Acupuncturist and yoga instructor Sarah Leyki Fields holds a similar vision of wellness and the interconnected systems of the body and health. In her field, ayurvedic medicine, the focus includes whole-body healing and the balancing of mind, body and spirit. “There are external factors and internal factors,” she says, “and you’re taught through Daoist traditions how emotions affect us and what they actually do to the chi of our body and how the internal organs are operating inside of us as a family living under one roof.”
Fields, who holds a degree in nutrition and psychology from Arizona State University, supplemented her education with Chinese medicine and later went on to study and become certified as a Bikram yoga instructor and Five Elements acupuncture practitioner.
The Five Element theory is one of the core systems of thought within Chinese medicine and serves as one of the major diagnostic tools in treatment, she explains. Using this approach, Fields observes the natural cycles and interconnected relationships within a person and the environment.
She agrees with Martin that the curriculum offered in college lacks the breadth of knowledge available in whole-body system awareness. As a health coach in various fields (yoga, acupuncture and nutrition), Fields works in many capacities to teach people how to understand their bodies’ systems better and how to naturally care for themselves. She offers a 21-day ayurvedic cleanse as a grounding approach for those wanting to detox and reset their bodies by eliminating dairy, sugar and processed foods from their diet.
“The philosophy is so important,” she says, “because then what you’re doing to care for your health becomes more than just treatment of symptoms.”
16 London Road, Asheville
Sarah Leyki Fields