Whereas most forms of medical treatment are reactive – responding to symptoms as they arise and then working to remove those symptoms – health coaching takes a proactive approach: working with therapeutic lifestyle changes to prevent sickness form occurring in the first place. The levers at a health coach’s disposal include nutrition, exercise and movement, energy management, sleep management, meditation, self-awareness, mindfulness and relationships. That’s a lot more nuance and creativity in this approach than simply taking a pill, because health coaching assumes that you are more than a combination of cells and synapses. Human beings are complex organisms forming part of even more complex systems.
Our biology can be directly affected by pharmaceuticals and surgical interventions, but what of our psyche and emotions? There is constant feedback process happening between the mental and physical, psychological and physiological. The balance – or imbalance – of chemicals and hormones in our bodies significantly impacts our state of mind. In turn, our state of mind determines which chemicals, neurons and neurotransmitters are released by our brains and in what quantities. Sometimes people speak of a particular condition being ‘psycho-somatic’, but in truth all conditions are pyscho-somatic – an orchestration of the body and mind. But that’s just when we’re speaking about the individual. When we consider the impact that our environment, relationships and social systems can have on our body-mind, then we move into a space of subtlety and complexity that simply can’t be addressed with drugs alone.
Take obesity, for example – it’s not just about junk food. Nor is it, as many people believe, simply a case of insufficient willpower. Many people who are overweight don’t feel it is actually within their power to change their circumstances. And to a large degree they may be right. In The Religion of Tomorrow, Ken Wilber argues that people are consuming more – of everything, not just food – in response to the overwhelming reality of modern life. There’s simply too much changing too quickly in too many ways. Understandably, many people feel incapable of dealing with these pressures and surrender to unconscious primal drives, like comfort eating, that make them feel better. Of course, willpower always has a role to play when trying to change your behaviour, but what is often missed is how the decks are stacked against the individual who wants to lose 10 pounds, run 5kms, stop smoking or beat cancer. There’s a lot going on in that change process. The real worth of a health coach lies in the degree to which she is able to help her client tease apart the factors that contributed to his current situation, and build a plan that will lead him to a new way of being. This plan usually involves profoundly simple but intelligent lifestyle and behaviour modifications that assist the client in moving toward greater wellness.
To be well an individual needs to take responsibility for his wellness. One of the side effects of an over-medicated culture is that people cede responsibility for their health to their doctor or pharmacists. Empowerment is key, which is why a health coach is a facilitator, not a doctor. In an age when ‘healthcare’ is more often called ‘sickcare’, when societies are increasingly fragmented and atomised, the value of being seen as a complete human who can be supported in their growth towards success is immense. The reward is not simply better health, it is fuller being.