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Health hero Q&A: This wellness coach understands the power of the mind

Bonnie Vengrow By Bonnie Vengrow

Martha Buko

When it comes to quitting a bad habit like smoking, Martha Buko understands that true change ― the kind that sticks ― requires more than nicotine patches and lozenges. It’s about tending to the body and the mind so the two work in concert.

Martha, a wellness coach at Aetna, comes by this knowledge first-hand: A former smoker, she gave up the habit while she was working in the field of chemical dependency. When an opportunity arose to become certified in tobacco cessation coaching, she jumped at the chance. “I knew that my personal experience could be one helpful part of assisting others,” says the Columbus, Ohio, resident. “It gives me more credibility because I’ve been there.”

Certainly that empathy helps puts people like John Agin at ease. John was a longtime smoker who was connected with Martha through Aetna when he was ready to kick the habit. Through her help, he learned coping strategies that helped him stop smoking for good. “Martha has been an amazing advocate and coach and sounding board,” he says. “When I hit a plateau, she helped me by sharing things from her experience with quitting. She understood the cravings, she understood what I felt.”  (Find out more about John’s story.)

Martha has 16 years of experience coaching and counseling people to eat better, get moving, manage stress and, of course, quit unhealthy habits like smoking. Since joining Aetna in 2011, she has helped members achieve their health ambitions, whatever they may be. Here she talks about the role of compassion in health coaching and why she celebrates small victories.

Q: What motivated you to become a wellness coach?
A: I had been involved with health education most of my career. I saw coaching as an opportunity to go beyond facts and tap into motivation, strengths, support and goal setting. Knowledge with action and support are more likely to create positive change.

Q: How important is the mind-body connection when it comes to achieving long-term goals, like quitting smoking?
A: Behavior change is difficult; both body and mind need to be nurtured. When quitting smoking, it’s important to take care of your body with good nutrition, rest, sleep and exercise. Directing your mind to positive, life-affirming thoughts can help, too. It’s normal to want to smoke and to feel uncomfortable with the change. Acknowledge it, then redirect your thoughts and actions to your ultimate goal of being free from tobacco.

tying hiking boots

Q: What role does compassion play in your approach to counseling?
A: It takes courage to acknowledge that you need to make changes in your life. Most smokers have tried to quit ― many times. They don’t need judgment or blame from others or themselves. They need compassion from their support network as well as compassion toward themselves to stay motivated. I encourage members to be kind to themselves, to recognize that any new or challenging endeavor is going to have some bumps along the way. And if they lapse, I am there to help them learn from the experience and re-examine their motivation.

Each member has to find their intrinsic motivation to quit. My job is to help them identify their “why,” their strengths, their support and any resources that will help them through this process.

Q: How important is having a supportive partner or network when you’re trying to break a bad habit? 
A: Having people around you who share your desire to live a healthy lifestyle can strengthen and reinforce the motivation you need to successfully quit a bad habit. But you should also have alternate support people to lean on. It can be very stressful and isolating to quit. You are letting go of a part of your identity, changing beliefs, the way you deal with stress, boredom, anger. You’re creating new routines. Talking to ex-smokers or sharing the experience with others can strengthen resolve, inspire and allow you to learn about other’s ideas and perspectives. Additional support and helpful information can also be found online from sites like smokefree.gov or whyquit.com or through cessation apps and forums. Some places also offer Nicotine Anonymous meetings.

Q: What has been your most fulfilling professional moment so far? 
A: I can’t think of any one moment. In general, I love to hear about someone’s success, and it’s not necessarily quitting or a number on a scale.  It could be a “lightbulb moment” or a small step forward.  Little wins matter, and I try to emphasize that with my members.

Q: What do you like to do in your free time?
A: I get together with my friends, hike, go to outdoor concerts and festivals, monthly book club and travel.

Q: What’s your health ambition, and how are you achieving it? 
A: My health ambition is to have a long health span. I want to live a long life without restrictions. I exercise at the gym, walk daily, do Pilates and practice yoga. Most of my diet is plant-based.

Q: What’s the best piece of health advice you’ve been given? 
A: If you want your body to take care of you, you have to take care of your body.

About the author

Bonnie Vengrow is a journalist based in NYC who has written for Parents, Prevention, Rodale’s Organic Life, Good Housekeeping and others. She’s never met a hiking trail she doesn’t like and is currently working on perfecting her headstand in yoga class.