Thrive by IU Health

April 11, 2022

Coaching through common health concerns among African Americans

Coaching through common health concerns among African Americans

This year’s theme for Black History Month is “Black Health and Wellness.” Here’s a look at how one health coach promotes that theme.

By IU Health Senior Journalist, T.J. Banes,

The patient comes in with concerns. Those concerns may sound like “obesity,” “depression,” and “fatigue.” It takes a full inventory of the patient to get to the core of those descriptors.

That’s where IU Health’s Certified Health & Wellness Coach, Michelle Adams comes in. Her role does not focus on ethnic breakdowns, but she does address overall health concerns.

Michelle Adams

Research shows that African Americans are generally at higher risk for heart diseases, high blood pressure, stroke, cancer, and diabetes. Add to that, Indiana statistics that indicate Black residents have contracted the novel Coronavirus at a much higher rate than the general population.

So where does a health coach begin when a patient voices concerns? Health screenings provide an overall view of general health, said Adams. For instance, if there’s an indication of an elevation in blood pressure or pre-diabetes, coaching breaks down the main factors that cause those indicators.

“We’ll pick the key component that is slightly elevated and talk to the person about their day to day activity and lifestyle and then we may tap into specific resources,” said Adams. That can include connecting with a nurse or other medical practitioner. “I definitely look into trying to help them set goals and make changes if they are ready,” she said.

Setting those goals toward better health and wellness is not only based on numbers though. Coaching involves a bigger picture. It involves asking a lot of questions and listening to the answers.

A client who wants to lose weight may be given a goal of side-walking 30 minutes a day. After repeated check-ins, the individual reports that he is not completing the goal. A deeper dive may indicate that he lives in an area where there are no sidewalks, and limited access to other physical outlets. There may be another discovery too. The patient lacks motivation because he is depressed.

“What we hear as the number one priority – losing weight – turns out that the person really just wants someone in his corner, someone to provide social support. Once he felt good about that, he was motivated to become more active,” said Adams, who has a background in fitness. She shares that physical activity comes with a mindset.

“Growing up I looked at exercise as punishment – a dread. As I detached myself from that I formulated a different opinion –activity can be something enjoyable, entertaining, and engaging. It became more of a lifestyle,” said Adams.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) report physical activity reduces blood pressure – that can lead to Type 2 diabetes. Even moderate activity can improve sleep and reduce anxiety. The CDC further reports that long-term physical exercise can reduce the risks of developing dementia, lower the risk of heart disease and cancer, and improve weight loss, bone strength, and balance.

Adams recognizes that physical activity isn’t the only or easy answer to health concerns.

“Sometimes, you need to break goals down into bite sized pieces and consider the whole person,” she said. A physical screening may be one indicator of a health risk, but there are other indicators that may not be so obvious. Those include a person’s overall wellbeing - spiritual, physical, environmental, financial, occupational, social, and emotional health.

She describes a client who passed a lot of fast food restaurants to and from work and home. A combination of environmental and financial measures came into play when setting goals.

“It became an issue of stopping for fast food rather than going home and cooking. We talked about getting in the right frame of mind and where the priority was. “Sometimes having access to measure and weigh food can be difficult so we try to focus on tool and strategies that can help to quickly analyze nutritional content and make the best choice from there,” said Adams. The goal was to help the client focus on quality and nutrition.

“The reality is there are people who live in environments where there is limited access to healthy food choices and even safe walking spaces,” she said. “Especially in this time of a pandemic, health coaches are retraining participants to look at barriers and how we can help find solutions to those barriers – whether it’s a person’s physical barriers, mental barriers, or emotional barriers.”

In addition to personal health and wellness, this month’s Black History theme focuses on the legacy of Black scholars and medical practitioners. The Association for the Study of African American Life and History (ASALH) sets the theme annually. According to the ASALH, “the rise in fields, such as Public and Community Health and Health Informatics, have led to a rise in preventative care and a focus on body positivity, physical exercise, nutrition, and exploring other dietary options such as veganism and vegetarianism, and gardening.” The ASALH stresses that Black Health and Wellness not only includes physical body but also emotional and mental health. To learn more, click here.