When Anna Ward was a teenager, she enjoyed being athletic. She played lacrosse and field hockey, ran cross country and participated on a competitive jump rope team.
But when she left high school, she not only stopped being active but basically shut down.
“I lost my spark,” recalls Ward, now 23. “I was always tired. I woke up not excited about my day and just didn’t feel like I had that spark. But I didn’t know why.”
She was studying for a degree in photography, which she loves, but couldn’t do the work and the school “started to grumble.” And she started gaining weight.
“I was eating when I was bored. I was eating when I was happy. I was eating when I was tired. I wasn’t eating because I was hungry,” she says, noting that her parents, who are active and healthy, became concerned.
Then she found out about health coach Katie Ashley through the school Ward worked, Sundrops Montessori in Charleston.
Starting in the fall of 2013, Ashley’s coaching included weekly talks, meditation, yoga and stretching. Instead of talking about fitness and weight loss, Ashley managed to help reignite Ward’s passion for photography and life.
Ward’s life turned back around.
“I knew I had it in me,” says Ward. “I knew I could be a healthy, happy person again, but I just needed a coach because that’s what I’m used to (having).”
Ward adds that Ashley, who herself battled eating disorders as a young woman, didn’t talk about eating for “a long time,” but that Ward found herself making healthier choices anyway.
“It was primarily about being mindful,” says Ward, of one of the main actions she learned from Ashley.
A new trend
Health or wellness coaches are one of the biggest health trends identified in a survey by the American College of Sports Medicine’s ninth annual Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends. The survey for 2015 was based on 3,403 responses, or 12 percent of the total questionnaires sent to health and fitness professionals.
The ACSM report says “wellness coaching took the biggest jump from last year’s survey” when it jumped from No. 17 to No. 13.
The report adds that wellness coaching, which has been in the Top 20 of trends in the survey since 2010, describes it as “integrating behavioral change science into health promotion, disease prevention and rehabilitation programs.”
“Wellness coaching often uses a one-on-one approach similar to a personal trainer, with the coach providing support, guidance and encouragement. The wellness coach focuses on the client’s values, needs, vision and goals,” the report says.
It adds that some personal trainers and other health and fitness professionals are now adopting wellness coaching and its principled techniques of behavior change.
That’s not so cut-and-dry.
The emerging field has no certifying body and can be categorized as being somewhere between a certified personal trainer and a fully qualified psychologist.
“It (health coaching) totally varies,” says Ashley. “Of the coaches I know, they all have a niche.”
Ashley, who studied dance in college and is a former ballet choreographer, has certifications in yoga, integrative movement therapy and plant-based nutrition. She says she felt called to be a health coach in part because of her personal experiences with eating disorders.
“In my experience, the options I had were therapy, (going to) a nutritionist or psychologist. That was it. If you’re in a treatment center, you could get dance therapy or movement therapy. But I couldn’t really find much of that anywhere else,” Ashley says.
“I felt like whenever I started to gain a sense of real health, it was all through empowering practices instead of clinical practices.”
Ashley says many of her clients have eating disorders, addictions, chronic pain, anxiety or depression. Most are women, but the age range goes from 25 to 65.
“The commonality for my clientele is some sort of dissatisfaction that is manifesting in their body in some way, from eating disorders and addiction to chronic pain.”
She works with people in 10-week periods at a cost of $1,200 per period, which includes weekly 90-minute meetings, regular online journaling and “homework,” meditation and yoga. Ashley is available 24/7, within reason.
“I’m super available. My clients are always texting me, 24 hours a day. I had to figure out what’s important to reply to at 11 o’clock. Some things are more important than others, such as a random philosophical question.”
Ashley advises that, while health coaching is not new, its growing popularity means those seeking help should be careful.
Dr. Ann G. Kulze, a longtime local medical doctor who started health coaching among other efforts a decade ago, agrees. But she doesn’t see the emergence of the field as a bad trend.
“What’s driving it is an ongoing demand,” says Kulze. “As chronic diseases continue to uptick, you’re going to see more and more players getting in the game because of that demand (for help) … It’s driven by a crisis that the traditional health care system isn’t set up to handle.”
Health coaching by people with fewer credentials than physicians, psychologists or dietitians will make expertise more available and less expensive, she adds.
“One of the pitfalls is that anyone will be able to call themselves a health coach, but that being said, I have met some health coaches who know their stuff and do good work.”
She adds, “Modern medicine is not constructed to answer the demand that we’re facing and we simply need more boots on the ground because of the demand.”
This article was republished with permission from the author, David Quick with The Post and Courier.