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Losing weight could be a matter of coaching
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Published: 6/23/2008 12:17 AM

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When Sharlene Langner won four free sessions with a wellness coach through a local school raffle, she was skeptical. At 5 feet tall and 175 pounds, the Maplewood, N.J., mother of two had tried to diet and exercise on her own but never really had much luck. Commuting to her unsatisfying job didn't help her situation - by the time she'd get home after her hourlong drive from work, she'd be starving and would fill up on pasta, followed by what she calls a "cookie chaser."

"I was overweight; I couldn't move around," she says. When she won the raffle, "I remember thinking, 'This will never work.'"

Once she met with her coach, Risa Olinsky, Langner's attitude changed. Instead of telling Langner what to do - "go on a diet," "lose weight" - Olinsky prodded her with questions. "She asked what I'm all about, how do I motivate myself, how do I feel about myself," says Langner. "It was never 'What size do you want to be?' but 'How do you want to feel?'"

Olinsky collaborated with Langner, who is 51, and helped her figure out what kind of exercise she could incorporate into her busy workweek and how to best control her eating. They decided that Langner would use the stairs instead of an elevator or escalator whenever possible, take walks on her lunch breaks and always have healthy food with her so that she wouldn't be tempted to snack on junk food.

It was not a complicated formula, but it worked: After a year of weekly phone conversations (at $75 for 45 minutes), Langner is 35 pounds lighter, full of energy, more confident and is happily ensconced in a new job in New York City.

Having a professional devise a plan with her and stand by her for support gave her the extra push. "When I thought I couldn't get beyond a certain point, Risa was there to encourage me," she says.

That is the general idea behind wellness coaching. The growing field (last year Wellcoaches Corp. certified 1,000 coaches, up from 100 in 2003) tackles such issues as diet, fitness, time management and stress relief, focusing less on diet and exercise regimens and more on long-term behavioral patterns. Coaches come with backgrounds in fields as diverse as nursing, nutrition and mental health. "Many people are living such time-pressured lives they have a sense of a lack of control," says Cedric Bryant, chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise ( "Wellness coaching is a tool that might help them to assume more control."

Patric Powell, 54, of San Francisco, began seeing a wellness coach to help him lose 25 pounds. But when his hectic job running his own floral business began cutting into his sleep and adding to his stress, coach Jay Grant helped Powell through those issues, too. The two adjusted Powell's social schedule, and Grant suggested Powell try stress-reducing techniques, like taking deep breaths, counting to 10 or going for a walk. "It was basic things," says Powell, "but it's things I don't pay attention to unless I'm talking to him about it."

Because wellness coaching is a new field, it's important to check your coach's background before hiring him or her. Ideally, wellness coaches should be certified by a reputable program like Wellcoaches (, which has been endorsed by the American College of Sports Medicine (

Interview two or three coaches by phone to see which one you click with. Finally, don't expect too much. Wellness coaches are not therapists, and few are trained to help you deal with emotional wounds. "What we're really trying to accomplish is to get people away from quick fixes and to a place where they have designed their own lifestyle," says Margaret Moore, CEO of Wellcoaches.

Sharlene Langner could be the poster child for such a philosophy. While losing weight was a personal triumph, the most important thing, she says, is the behavioral changes that her consultations with Olinsky have instilled.

About six months after she began her wellness coaching sessions, she recalls, she walked by a Krispy Kreme, a place that often tempted her. "I smelled that sweet smell and it overwhelmed me," she says. "I just thought, 'I don't want it.' That was a big step for me."