As a health and lifestyle journalist, I’m always on the lookout for things to do to improve my health, from taking yoga classes to reduce stress to upping my laundry list of supplements to make sure I’m covering all of my nutritional bases. I’m lucky in the sense that I’ve encountered few health scares in my 32 years, have no trouble maintaining a healthy BMI, and sincerely love to eat nutrient-rich foods (I’m all about sauteed veggies!).
So when the opportunity to work with a health coach for an experimental, first-person story came to my doorstep, I was super hesitant at first. For starters, I’m no stranger to things like therapy and personal training. I am a huge advocate of working with a health professional to enhance myself. But the prospect of working with a health coach didn’t seem up my alley from the start. I already knew how to eat healthy foods — I pack tons of mushrooms, kale, whole grains, lean proteins, and water into my diet. I’m an avid exerciser and fit at least 4 miles of movement into each day, albeit with my two-year-old in tow. What advice would a health coach give me that I didn’t already know?
I was so, so wrong. Firstly, I had no true understanding of what a health coach did in the first place. Secondly, I had no way of knowing just how transformational the experience would be — especially due to the incredible professional I was about to get the chance to work with.
I came across London-based integrative nutrition health coach Lianna Neilsen, through a professional connection who knew I was on the hunt for a health coach to work with for two months as research for a story. Her story is a fascinating one. From a woodsy little town in Maine, she moved to New York City to pursue a career in acting only to find herself wrapped up in a hectic and stress-fueled lifestyle that led to a steady decline in her health. Before she knew it, she was suffering from a myriad of undiagnosable issues, from hormonal imbalances and weight gain to skin changes and even intestinal bleeding. She knew something had to change, stat, so she took her health into her own hands and started making diet and lifestyle changes that wound up giving her the mojo to pursue a full-time career as a health coach. She studied at the Institute for Integrative Nutrition and started her own successful solo business working with a wide range of clients virtually over Zoom. I was psyched when she happily agreed to work with me on this story experiment, and we got things started right away.
Prior to our first 1-hour session out of six, Lianna sent me a health history form to fill out that was pretty intensive. It covered everything from my age, height, weight, and relationship status to my medical information, health concerns and goals, food preferences, and food cravings. My main health concern? I had no idea because I answered that I just wanted to live and eat my very best to be a good mother, partner, friend, writer, and beyond. Talk about being vague.
Upon our first meeting together, we introduced ourselves and talked a bit about my responses from the health history form. Lianna said I was one of the healthier people she’s worked with but that we’d do some digging to find areas where she could be helpful. I was slightly skeptical at first but tried to be open to the opportunity in front of me.
While food and exercise weren’t areas of concern for me, it was clear to see that others were — namely, in the realm of stress relief. As a mom of a toddler with a full-time job that I try to cram into just 20-30 hours a week with very little child care thanks to the pandemic, to say I was burnt out was an understatement. This wasn’t something that I didn’t know about myself, but it was certainly something that I wasn’t aware was affecting my mental, physical and emotional health so immensely. Ever since getting pregnant in the summer of 2018, I was flooded with an overwhelming amount of anxiety that was not necessarily new to me but was in such an intensity that I had trouble coping.
This anxiety only worsened when my daughter was born, especially with the challenges brought on by exclusive breastfeeding and a colicky baby who spent most of each day in a fit of screaming tears. I felt let down by how unprepared society left me for this role. How was I supposed to “do it all?” like I’m expected to do — have a booming career, be a full-time mother, choose breast- over bottle-feeding, etc.?
Once my daughter turned one, I started to feel an enormous weight lift off my shoulders. She was more independent, and I was more confident in my skill as a mother. Then the pandemic hit, and everything became heavier again. I had to pull her out of the part-time daycare that allowed me some freedom to work in peace and manage a work-from-home partnership with my husband, all while we traded off watching our daughter in between meetings and assignments. The pressure was immense, and the loneliness of isolating myself from friends, and even some family, was deafening.
This is where Lianna really honed in on the area of my health that required immediate TLC. Each session, we talked about my stress and handling everything being thrown at me and worked on solutions that could help ease the pressure. One of Lianna’s suggestions for how I could find peace in the chaos was to adopt a meditation practice.
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There was just something about the concept of lying or sitting down for minutes on end while listening to someone talk calmly that was so unnerving to me. I have always been such a doer that the prospect of sitting idly for periods of time while there was so much left on my to-do list seemed crazy. Per Lianna’s suggestion, I gave it a try. Even 5 minutes a day was enough to see a drastic change in my energy and stress levels.
Five minutes a day? Sure, why not? I started with just that and was so impressed with how relaxed I’d feel after each session. I started upping the timeframe and doing 10 minutes here and 15 minutes there. I noticed that after each meditation period — some of which I’d listen to on YouTube or lie in silence — I felt lighter, more balanced, more ready to take on whatever the rest of my day was about to throw at me.
Another area that Lianna inspired me to work on was unplugging from social media and focusing more on spending quality time with myself and my family. In our screen-saturated world, it can be so hard to separate from the devices that keep us feeling “plugged in,” but I knew that spending 10+ hours locked into a screen was becoming increasingly draining — both on my energy and stress levels. She encouraged me to try to put away my phone throughout the day and do more things with purpose. On my own accord, I upped my daily 4-mile walks to 4-mile runs where I’d unplug from my device and listen to the sounds around me. I also started doing some yoga classes to get more in touch with my body, put my phone away, and focus on my breathing and mastering the moves instructed by the teacher. With no one to text or call me, I was forced to focus on the path ahead of me only, and it was so much more relaxing than I could have ever foreseen.
While I was impressed with how much Lianna helped me handle my stress levels, it was also a welcome surprise that I found her an equal parts therapist as she was a health coach. We’d talk about personal struggles, experiences that felt heavy from the past, and she’d share her own deeply personal experiences with me to remind me that I was far from alone on my journey. The humanity and compassion I felt from her throughout the six weeks we worked together may have been my favorite takeaway. She was someone to talk to about pretty much anything — and I found that to be therapeutic in itself.
I was truly sad when it came time for our last session together. We did six total, which is just one of the many packages she offers for her clients. Unfortunately, a health coach is not something that falls under health insurance, so the pay is out of pocket, but when I tell you working with a health coach — most especially Lianna — was one of the best things I’ve ever done for my health, I am being 100 percent sincere.
In our last session, I asked Lianna how she knows when it’s time for a client to move on. She said, “I feel successful with a client when at the end they know what they need, and I’m doing more of the listening than advising,” which I found to be inspiring, empowering, and true for my case — though I certainly would have loved more sessions with her.
The biggest takeaway from working with a health coach was that health is not just exercise and diet. It is so much more. It is the relationship to yourself — how you talk to yourself, how you treat yourself, how you handle the relationships in your life. As Lianna told me, everything in your life affects your physical health — not just diet and exercise — so you need to make sure there’s balance in all the areas. Of course, it’s almost impossible to have everything be perfect all the time, but health coaching creates balance, gives tools to ride the ups and downs along the way. What health coach does is empower people to listen to themselves and know how to do so.
As Lianna said in our last session, “Ups and downs are part of life, but what I do is give people the tools they need to get out of the downs so that they can stay up longer.” How awesome is that?
To anyone looking to work with a health coach, my advice is to go for it. Even if you think you might not get something out of it, you may be surprised, like in my case. And it’s a gift you’re giving yourself — one of health and peace of mind, which are both priceless.