Meet Health Coach Amy Hendel: ‘HealthGal’ Sets Sights on Lifestyle Modification

Thursday, September 8th, 2011
This post was written by Jessica Fornarotto

This month’s inside look at a health coach, the choices he or she has made on the road to success, and the challenges ahead.

Excerpted from the September 2011 HealthCoach Huddle.

Amy Hendel, R-PA, CEO and health coach for HealthGal.

HIN: What was your first job out of college and how did you get into health coaching?

Amy Hendel: I went to college thinking that I would apply to medical school. My dad actually convinced me to look at the physician assistant (PA) degree, which would allow me to pursue a health career without the having to commit to a very extended education and the kind of financial debt I would be paying off for at least a decade. After three years as a PA in internal medicine helping people try to manage multiple diseases associated with poor lifestyle choices, I decided I would rather get involved in helping to prevent disease or helping patients to dig their way out of chronic disease by using lifestyle modification techniques. Back when I started there were no ‘coaches’ — just health professionals from a variety of health backgrounds trying to modify people’s habits, one habit at a time.

Has there been a defining moment in your career? Perhaps when you knew you were on the right road.

In my third year as a PA, I was dragging my newborn quite early every morning to a babysitter near the hospital where I was working, so I could breastfeed her before and after my early AM duties in the operating room. My duties included performing routine pre-surgery history and physicals on patients with all kinds of complicated illnesses like diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, and I felt like I was watching a procession of ‘train wrecks’ pass before me. I was challenged as a mother and professional, trying to juggle the needs of my newborn and feeling escalating frustration with the typical patient who seemed to want pills to fix everything. One day I walked upstairs to the hospital administrator and gave notice to him that day. I also impulsively told him that I planned on setting up a lifestyle modification program and hoped he would tell doctors at the hospital to refer patients to me who were willing to work on modifying lifestyle habits contributing to their multiple health issues.

In brief, describe your organization.

The HealthGal is a name I began using about 10 years ago, after expanding my health coaching practice to include media projects. I started contributing weekly health segments to KCBS after a chance on-air guest appearance, which led to a one-year position there. I have been a contributing guest health expert on local and national news and talk shows — TV and radio — and I’ve been a host of a PBS health talk show, as well as a Westwood One radio show. I blog for several health Web sites and my most recent streaming video show is Food Rescue at www.healthination.com. I do a fair amount of consulting work, particularly on health campaigns, but still maintain a private practice in California and New York.

What are two or three important concepts or rules that you follow in health coaching?

As a coach I’m always truthful and empathic, and I always ask ‘the hard questions.’ Obesity is a disease, so you never ‘cure it.’ You simply put it into remission.

What is the single-most successful thing that your company is doing now?

Though I continue to coach individuals, I feel that my Tweets at HealthGal1103 and my blogs at www.healthcentral.com/obesity and www.healthcorps.net are reaching so many people who are struggling with obesity and health issues related to obesity. Getting outreach to parents who struggle with obesity themselves and so easily hand off these same issues to their kids, is hugely accomplished through my Internet efforts.

Do you see a trend or path that you have to lock onto for 2011?

Though I am a huge exercise fanatic and it is always a component of my health coaching, 2011 and 2012 will showcase a trend of accepting that we largely ‘are what we eat and we do need to label foods as either necessary foods or treat foods. Ninety percent of the time we need to be eating good or necessary foods.

What is the most satisfying thing about being a health coach?

When you can take a person who sees their weight as an insurmountable burden or someone who has been yo-yo dieting for years and show them the way and make them realize that they can manage their lifestyle, one habit at at a time — you, as a coach, feel like a true healer.

Where did you grow up?

I grew up in Brooklyn as the daughter of a school teacher and a homemaker. Money was always tight but I was raised to believe that education and a profession was the key to success. The women in my family all struggled with weight issues — my mom was obese and by age 14 I was 50 pounds overweight.

What college did you attend? Is there a moment from that time that stands out?

I attended Brooklyn College and fell in love with organic chemistry…I know, what a crazy subject to love! I remember thinking that science explains pretty much everything. One of my professors was really into nutrition and spending time in his lab actually exposed me to rudimentary nutrition lessons.

Are you married? Do you have children?

I am married to a physician and we have a daughter who just finished her master’s degree in architecture. My son is a junior at MIT. They are both athletes — my daughter was a ranked junior tennis player in California and played for NYU and my son is a long distance runner. I suppose that I am most proud of the fact that both of them are active, healthy and understand the importance of living a healthy life.

What is your favorite hobby and how did it develop in your life?

My favorite hobbies are playing tennis and I’ve recently taken up gardening.

Is there a book you recently read or movie you saw that you would recommend?

I loved the book “Room,” probably because the young woman in the story was an extraordinary protagonist, surviving and raising a child under the most horrific circumstances. I also just saw “Sarah’s Key” and thought it told an important story from the Holocaust that had not received significant exposure.

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