The world’s health is in crisis. For the first time in our history more people worldwide are obese than underweight, with the World Health Organization (WHO) reporting global obesity levels more than doubling since 1980. The number of people with diabetes has more than tripled in the same period of time. Half of us will hear the words, ‘you have cancer’ at some point in our lives. Across the world, chronic health conditions have surpassed acute health issues in number and economic cost. But it’s not just physical health. A major clue to the causes of this planetary health epidemic is the deterioration of mental health, now a major focus for the WHO. The concurrent rises in anxiety, depression, obesity, diabetes and cardiac disease point to a multidimensional problem, one that includes the physical, mental, emotional, and even spiritual domains of society and the individual. The most common and accepted response to these maladies is prescription medication, but it’s not working. This approach targets the symptoms, but not the cause of the disease. And, though there is an important space and use for allopathic medicine, a broader view of health and what it means is imperative if we are to have any possibility of helping the sick. But with so much (competing) information and literature out there it is increasingly difficult for an individual to make intelligent choices. Health coaching is a new field of coaching that has naturally risen to help fill this gap, to provide the guidance and information required to embrace positive health and wellbeing in the 21stCentury.

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.

Photo by Jess Watters on Unsplash