Lydia Lahmann-Sharbonda (Aitkin, MN) recalls the moment in her life that changed everything. It was in her eighth grade social studies class, and the teacher had just brought up a PowerPoint. She pulled out her notebook, but suddenly she wasn’t able to see the slides well enough to take notes.
“At the time, I just thought I needed glasses and didn’t think much of it … but then I went to the eye doctor and they weren’t able to correct my vision,” says Lahmann-Sharbonda.
Over the next few months, she went to a variety of specialists and was eventually diagnosed with Stargardt’s disease—a genetic form of macular degeneration causing central vision loss.
Her vision deteriorated quickly until she was labeled as legally blind.
She says that up until that point in her life, she hadn’t thought very much about her health. But after her diagnosis, she decided to take control of the aspects that she could.
“I started learning about nutrition and fitness, and I slowly made small changes to my diet and lifestyle and was seeing and feeling the progress I was making,” she says.
By the beginning of high school, her vision had stabilized and she had lost about 40 pounds. But soon her first high school relationship turned abusive, her parents got divorced, and her health began to suffer again.
“It seemed like it was just one thing after another and I felt as though my life was spiraling out of control,” says Lahmann-Sharbonda. “I decided to take what I could control into my own hands … but this time I went too far and I developed an eating disorder.”
Her eating disorder continued to run her life until her senior year when she began a cognitive behavioral therapy program that helped her through recovery.
Now a third-year graduate student, Lahmann-Sharbonda wants to help people make positive changes in their lives and navigate through unforeseen circumstances like the ones she experienced.
To prepare for this, she is working towards a Master of Arts in Integrative Health and Wellbeing Coaching, a program offered through the U of M’s Bakken Center for Spirituality and Healing that tends to draw professionals from a variety of fields, including nursing, medicine, psychology, social work, and counseling.
“[The program] seemed like the perfect intersection between my passion for nutrition and wellness, as well as helping to guide others to become their best selves,” says Lahmann-Sharbonda.
The Center for Spirituality and Healing has been a leader in the health coaching field for over a decade. It began offering the first academically based graduate health coaching program in the United States in 2005. The program focuses on integrative therapies and healing practices with an emphasis in health coaching.
Graduates of the program work in a multitude of settings, including hospitals, clinics, health educational facilities, community centers, senior living centers, fitness venues, and private practice.
“I think when people hear the term ‘health coach’ they think of someone who writes nutrition programs, who writes fitness programs, and then tells you what to do, when in reality a health coach comes in and asks, ‘What do you want to do?’ and empowers them to do that. It's actually a lot of inner work,” says Lahmann-Sharbonda.
She eventually sees herself working with people who are high-achieving and goal oriented, but who are suffering from a lack of work/life balance.
“I used to always chase things that were rooted in aesthetics—that fitness piece,” says Lahmann-Sharbonda. “People are always chasing something, whether that is looking a certain way, or they want the best job they can get or they want the most power, the most money. … And something that I found through my experience is that chasing wellness and chasing health and trying to get to the optimal place in those realms will then allow everything else to follow.”
For those considering a similar career path, she speaks highly of the program’s work/life balance.
“I think one thing that really makes the program unique as far as a master's program goes is that they put your mental health and your physical health above everything else,” she says. “This program teaches you how to put yourself first so you're then able to give your best to whatever it is you want to do.”
Lydia Lahmann-Sharbonda received a BS in Health and Wellbeing Sciences through the College of Continuing and Professional Studies in 2019. She interned as a health coach at the University's Recreation and Wellness Center in the spring of 2021.