Unlocking Behavior Change as Health Coaches: 7 Ways Coaches Support Clients for Lasting Change 


Ultimate Health Behavioral Change Playbook for Health & Wellness Coaches Looking to Support Change in Clients’ Lives 

The journey toward optimal health and well-being is a deeply personal and transformative process, requiring individuals to navigate a complex landscape of habits, beliefs, and environmental factors. Health behavior change is a crucial component of this journey, as individuals strive to adopt healthier lifestyles that promote physical, mental, and emotional wellness.  

Health coaches play a pivotal role in guiding clients through this process by offering support and accountability while empowering clients to take control of their health.  

This article will explore the concept of health behavior change, examine various theories and models that inform health coaching practices, and discuss the client-centered approach used by health coaches to develop programs that foster lasting change and improved health outcomes. 

What is Health Behavior Change? 

Health behavior change refers to the process of modifying or adopting new behaviors that positively impact an individual’s health and well-being. This process involves replacing unhealthy habits or behaviors with healthier alternatives to prevent or manage health conditions, reduce the risk of disease, and promote overall physical, mental, and emotional well-being. 

Health behaviors encompass a wide range of activities and choices related to diet, exercise, sleep, stress management, substance use, and adherence to medical treatment or preventive care, among others. Examples of health behavior change can include adopting a balanced diet, starting a regular exercise routine, quitting smoking, reducing alcohol consumption, managing stress through mindfulness practices, or adhering to prescribed medications or treatments for chronic conditions. 

The process of health behavior change can be challenging and complex, as it often involves overcoming deeply ingrained habits, addressing psychological barriers, and navigating social and environmental influences. Various theories and models, such as the Health Belief Model, Transtheoretical Model, Social Cognitive Theory, Self-Determination Theory, Theory of Planned Behavior, and Motivational Interviewing, provide frameworks to understand and facilitate health behavior change by addressing factors that influence motivation, readiness, and the ability to sustain change over time. We provide an overview of each of these models below.  

Health coaches and professionals play a crucial role in supporting individuals through the health behavior change process, using tailored interventions and strategies to address clients’ unique needs, preferences, and challenges. This ultimately promotes long-term behavior change and improved health outcomes. 

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Behavior Change Models 

Below, we’ve given you a run-down of some of the health behavior change models utilized by behavior change specialists, including health coaches. Behavior change models can provide health coaches with a framework to: 

  • Understand their clients’ mindsets and current behaviors. 
  • Determine their clients’ readiness to change. 
  • Work with clients to make a plan and set realistic goals or objectives.  
  • Identify and implement effective tools to motivate clients to make lasting changes.

As a note, the models below do not compete against each other. In other words, there is not one model that is universally better than another. In fact, as you learn more about these models, you’ll find that they are useful in different stages and help you to understand different aspects of your clients’ journey.  

Health Belief Model (HBM)  

The Health Belief Model (HBM) was developed in the 1950s by social psychologists Irwin M. Rosenstock, Godfrey M. Hochbaum, and Stephen K. Kegeles. It was created to help understand why people engage or do not engage in health-related behaviors. The model focuses on an individual’s perceptions and beliefs regarding a specific health issue, which play a crucial role in determining their behavior. 

The key components of the HBM are: 

  1. Perceived susceptibility: An individual’s belief about the likelihood of acquiring a specific health condition. People who perceive themselves as more susceptible are more likely to take preventive actions. 
  2. Perceived severity: An individual’s belief about the seriousness or severity of a health condition and its potential consequences. People who perceive the condition as severe are more likely to take action to prevent or treat it. 
  3. Perceived benefits: An individual’s belief about the effectiveness of a particular action in reducing the susceptibility or severity of the health condition. People who perceive greater benefits from a specific behavior are more likely to adopt it. 
  4. Perceived barriers: An individual’s belief about the obstacles or difficulties in performing the recommended behavior. People who perceive fewer barriers are more likely to engage in the behavior. 
  5. Cues to action: External or internal triggers that prompt individuals to take action. These cues could be informational messages, reminders, or personal experiences that lead to the realization that action is necessary. 
  6. Self-efficacy: An individual’s confidence in their ability to successfully perform the recommended behavior. Higher self-efficacy increases the likelihood of behavior change. 

Health coaches can use the HBM to assess clients’ beliefs about their health risks and the benefits of adopting healthier behaviors, to address clients’ perceived barriers, and to increase their self-efficacy to facilitate behavior change

Transtheoretical Model (TTM) or Stages of Change 

James O. Prochaska and Carlo C. DiClemente developed the Transtheoretical Model (TTM) or Stages of Change in the late 1970s. The Transtheoretical Model (TTM), also known as the Stages of Change model, was developed to describe the process of intentional behavior change. The model proposes that individuals move through six stages while changing their behavior, and each stage reflects a different level of readiness for change. 

The stages of the TTM are: 

  1. Pre-contemplation: In this stage, individuals are not yet considering change and may be unaware of the need to change. They may underestimate the benefits of change or overestimate the barriers. 
  2. Contemplation: Individuals in this stage are aware of the problem and are considering change but have not yet committed to taking action. They may weigh the pros and cons of changing their behavior. 
  3. Preparation: In this stage, individuals have decided to change and may begin taking small steps towards their goal. They may set a specific start date for the behavior change. 
  4. Action: This stage involves the active implementation of the new behavior. Individuals in the action stage have successfully adopted the new behavior and are working to maintain it. 
  5. Maintenance: In this stage, individuals have sustained the new behavior for a considerable period and are focused on preventing relapse. They may develop strategies to cope with challenges and maintain their commitment to change. 
  6. Termination: In this stage, the new behavior has become fully integrated into the individual’s life, and the risk of relapse is minimal. The change has become a permanent part of their lifestyle. 

Health coaches can use the TTM to determine clients’ readiness for change and tailor interventions to match their current stage, helping clients progress through the stages to support long-term behavior change. 

Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB) 

The Theory of Planned Behavior (TPB), developed by Icek Ajzen in the 1980s, is an extension of the Theory of Reasoned Action (TRA). TPB seeks to explain the factors that influence an individual’s intention to engage in a specific behavior, which in turn, predicts the likelihood of the behavior’s occurrence. The theory posits that intention is influenced by three key components: attitude, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. 

Key components of the TPB include: 

  1. Attitude: An individual’s overall evaluation of a specific behavior, including both positive and negative aspects. Attitudes are formed based on an individual’s beliefs about the outcomes of the behavior and the value they place on those outcomes. The more favorable the attitude towards the behavior, the stronger the intention to perform it. 
  2. Subjective norms: An individual’s perception of the social pressure to perform or not perform a specific behavior. This pressure comes from the individual’s beliefs about what significant others (family, friends, colleagues) think they should do, as well as the motivation to comply with those expectations. The greater the perceived social pressure, the stronger the intention to conform to those expectations. 
  3. Perceived behavioral control: An individual’s belief in their ability to successfully perform a behavior, taking into account the presence of factors that may facilitate or hinder the behavior. This concept is like self-efficacy in the Social Cognitive Theory. The higher the perceived behavioral control, the stronger the intention to engage in the behavior. 

In practical applications, health coaches and professionals can use the TPB to design programs that address clients’ attitudes, subjective norms, and perceived behavioral control. By focusing on these components, coaches can help clients form stronger intentions and increase the likelihood of behavior change. Some strategies might include the following: 

  • Providing information and education to change clients’ beliefs about the outcomes of the behavior, which can positively influence their attitudes. 
  • Identifying and addressing social influences that may affect clients’ subjective norms, such as involving significant others in the intervention or helping clients build supportive social networks. 
  • Developing clients’ skills and confidence to overcome barriers and increase their perceived behavioral control, which can enhance their ability to successfully perform the desired behavior. 

Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) 

Developed by Albert Bandura, Social Cognitive Theory (SCT) emphasizes the dynamic interaction between personal factors, environmental influences, and behavior. The theory suggests that people learn not only through their experiences but also by observing others’ behaviors and the outcomes of those behaviors. 

Key components of SCT include: 

  1. Self-efficacy: An individual’s belief in their ability to successfully perform a specific behavior or task. Higher self-efficacy is associated with increased motivation, persistence, and the likelihood of achieving a goal. 
  2. Observational learning: The process through which people acquire new behaviors, skills, or knowledge by observing others’ actions and the consequences of those actions. This learning can be either direct (watching someone perform a task) or indirect (watching a video or reading about a task). 
  3. Outcome expectations: An individual’s beliefs about the likely consequences of their actions. Positive outcome expectations can motivate behavior change, while negative expectations can inhibit it. 
  4. Reciprocal determinism: The concept that an individual’s behavior, personal factors, and environmental factors are interrelated and mutually influence one another. 

Health coaches can use SCT to enhance clients’ self-efficacy and teach them how to learn from observing others’ experiences, addressing clients’ expectations about the outcomes of their actions to maintain motivation for behavior change. 

Self-Determination Theory (SDT) 

Self-Determination Theory (SDT), developed by Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan in the 1970s and 1980s, is a psychological framework that focuses on the factors that drive motivation and promote psychological well-being. SDT posits that people have three innate psychological needs: autonomy, competence, and relatedness. Fulfilling these needs leads to intrinsic motivation, fostering lasting behavior change. 

Key components of SDT include: 

  1. Autonomy: The need to feel in control of one’s actions and decisions. When people experience autonomy, they are more likely to engage in activities for their inherent enjoyment or value rather than external rewards or pressures. 
  2. Competence: The need to feel effective and capable in one’s interactions with the environment. People are more likely to engage in activities that provide opportunities for growth and mastery. 
  3. Relatedness: The need to feel connected to others and to experience a sense of belonging. People are more likely to engage in activities that foster positive relationships and social interactions. 

Health coaches apply SDT to create an environment that fosters clients’ autonomy, competence, and relatedness. This promotes intrinsic motivation for behavior change and supports clients’ psychological needs to enhance their motivation and commitment to change. 

Motivational Interviewing (MI)  

While not a theory per se, Motivational Interviewing (MI) is a client-centered counseling approach that helps individuals explore and resolve ambivalence, enhance motivation, and support behavior change. Motivational Interviewing was developed in the 1980s by William R. Miller and Stephen Rollnick. 

Key principles of MI include: 

  1. Express empathy: Health coaches should demonstrate understanding and acceptance of clients’ experiences and emotions, creating a non-judgmental environment where clients feel comfortable discussing their concerns. 
  2. Develop discrepancy: Health coaches help clients explore the discrepancy between their current behaviors and their values or goals. This process can increase clients’ awareness of the need for change and enhance their motivation to take action. 
  3. Roll with resistance: Health coaches avoid confrontation and instead focus on understanding and validating clients’ perspectives. They work collaboratively with clients to explore alternative viewpoints and solutions. 
  4. Support self-efficacy: Health coaches encourage clients to believe in their ability to change by highlighting past successes, identifying strengths, and providing support. 

Coaches can also explore trauma-informed motivational interviewing to elevate their approach even more.  

Health coaches can use MI techniques to help clients explore their ambivalence towards change and increase their motivation, adopting a non-judgmental and empathetic approach to create a supportive environment that encourages clients to voice their concerns and take ownership of their change process. 

The Coach Approach to Health Behavior Change: 7 Ways Coaches Support Clients on the Road to Sustainable Change 

Health coaches adopt a client-centered approach to behavior change, focusing on supporting and empowering clients throughout their health journey rather than merely teaching or instructing them. Health coaches understand that everyone is unique, with their own needs, preferences, and challenges. As such, they develop personalized coaching programs that cater to the specific circumstances and goals of each client. 

By adopting this client-centered approach, health coaches empower clients to take ownership of their health behavior change process, fostering lasting change and improved overall well-being. 

Key aspects of a health coach’s approach to behavior change include the following seven elements:  

1. Active listening and empathy 

Health coaches actively listen to their clients, seeking to understand their experiences, emotions, and perspectives. They create a non-judgmental and empathetic environment where clients feel comfortable discussing their concerns and aspirations. 

2. Collaboration and partnership 

Health coaches collaborate with clients to establish a partnership built on trust and mutual respect. They recognize that clients are the experts in their own lives and work together with them to identify goals, develop action plans, and address barriers to change. 

3. Goal setting and action planning 

Health coaches help clients set realistic, achievable, and meaningful goals that align with their values and priorities. They also assist clients in developing action plans that outline specific steps, resources, and strategies needed to reach their goals. 

4. Enhancing motivation and self-efficacy

Health coaches utilize techniques such as motivational interviewing to explore clients’ ambivalence, elicit their intrinsic motivation, and support their belief in their ability to change. They help clients identify their strengths, past successes, and sources of motivation to foster self-efficacy and resilience. 

5. Providing guidance and resources 

While health coaches do not primarily focus on teaching, they do provide guidance and share resources as needed to support clients in acquiring new knowledge and skills. This may include providing information on nutrition, exercise, stress management, or other health-related topics, as well as directing clients to relevant tools, resources, or professional services. 

6. Monitoring progress and providing feedback 

Health coaches regularly monitor clients’ progress toward their goals, providing feedback, encouragement, and support. They help clients reflect on their achievements, challenges, and lessons learned, adapting coaching programs as necessary to ensure continued progress and success. 

7. Accountability and support 

Health coaches serve as a source of accountability and support for clients, helping them stay committed to their goals and navigate setbacks. They create a safe space for clients to share their struggles and successes, offering guidance and encouragement to keep clients motivated and engaged in their health journey. 

Main Takeaways 

Health behavior change is a dynamic and multifaceted process that involves overcoming ingrained habits, addressing psychological barriers, and adapting to social and environmental influences.  

Through the application of various theories and models such as the Health Belief Model, Transtheoretical Model, Social Cognitive Theory, Self-Determination Theory, Theory of Planned Behavior, and Motivational Interviewing, health coaches are equipped with the tools and insights needed to support clients on their journey towards improved well-being.  

By adopting a client-centered approach that emphasizes active listening, empathy, collaboration, goal setting, motivation enhancement, guidance, monitoring progress, and providing accountability, health coaches empower clients to take ownership of their health behavior change process. This tailored and supportive approach ultimately fosters long-term behavior change and improved health outcomes, allowing individuals to lead healthier, happier, and more fulfilling lives. 




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