Ken Germano, Executive Director, American Council on Exercise and Founder of Operation FitKids

Ci: First, can you give us a brief history on certification, and ACE?

Germano: ACSM started it in 1975 because of the corporate fitness environment with the fitness leader certification. It was very narrow in its scope. Then in the early ‘80s the American Council on Exercise was started, mainly because of the aerobics boom. You had a case where enthusiasts were teaching classes — with little or no training. They loved the classes and figured they would get in front of the room and lead the class. From that early instructional phase the certification was born. In that growth you get together with a third party assessment company, then define the role and the tasks of which you are going to certify and build an exam around it. That doesn't necessarily mean a practical use of skills, just that you are testing for a minimum standard and a minimum level of expertise. Then beyond that you have continuing education. It's a constant observation, assessment, redeveloping and redelivering of information.

Through this observation what do you see as the industry's hot-topic?

The next horizon for the industry is the educational piece. The reason for that is this fear of potential legislation. The threat of government mandates on how things get done in the health clubs and by fitness professionals. Certain professional standards of behavior need to be followed by clubs and fitness professionals. What we don't need is more customers getting hurt. That brings the media in. Then what the government sees is that people are unhappy with performance issues. Not so much the certification issue, but the performance issue of the professionals. The question is, who's responsibility is that?

Do you see heavy regulation on the horizon, then?

It will be a heavily regulated industry if we don't adhere to the policies and procedures we need to police ourselves as a maturing industry. But I think for the most part we are a little blip on the government's radar screen at this point. But we still have a responsibility to the members. All the groups that thrive within this industry have a responsibility to the members. I think that a safe consumer environment in the clubs hopefully, over time, will translate into more members — and hopefully that will help us reach 100 million members by 2010.

Is the lack of a standard procedural policy a hindrance to credibility?

I think there is a high bar to ascend to. I think there are certain groups that ascend to that bar, such as ACE, NSCA, ACSM, and NASM on the continuing education level. I think historically NSCA and ACSM are the ones that have raised the level, and from there we go. But there are 300-plus certifying bodies out there. It is fragmented and confusing to club owners. When we are asked “what is the difference between your's and XYZ's certification?” — you can see where we have a problem at that base level. The industry leaders Bally's TCI, Club Corp. of America, 24 Hour Fitness, Wellbridge, etc. they are maintaining their own high level of standards.

Do you run into professionals not following reasonable practices?

Unfortunately, yes. For example if someone has earned our certification as a lifestyle and weight management consultant, which teaches about nutrition, they need to realize it is not a license to recommend supplements or nutritional programming, which is really germane to licensed dietitians or medical practitioners. But we have thousands of professionals, both certified and not, going beyond the scope of practice. It puts us in a very precarious situation. That's why a code of ethics and a scope of practice are essential for the industry. In fact, we are exploring opportunities with NASM because of their cutting edge continuing education to put together an ethics course that will be taught by an attorney.

So you are talking about a self-imposed industry standard?

Yes. It is important that we show the government and the public that we are a safe, responsible and professional industry. Showing we are a safe and professional industry signal a lot of things to a lot of groups. For example, if Wall Street senses a safe consumer environment, hopefully more investors will gain confidence in fitness. We see a lot of tentacles growing off of this piece of education, credential, and qualification. One of the alarming things is that doctors do not have the confidence to refer patients to health clubs. They will tell you that they know the patients belong in health clubs but that they just don't have confidence in the fitness professionals in those clubs. So rather than refer them to the club they send them to the physical therapist where they are going to get 10 treatments or so, then be left on their own. This is a huge void because who comes into more contact with people that can benefit from what we offer than doctors, yet they are not confident in our profession. It is a sad statement on the state of the industry.

Personal trainers weren't always seen as professionals on a career track. Is ACE taking steps to change this?

As an organization we take the person by the hand as they are going through the discovery phase of “do I want to be a fitness professional?” and move them through that process of realizing they need certification, continuing education and renewal. Then we evaluate how we are providing more services to our professionals in order for them to provide more services to the clubs and the end-users. That's part of why we created the ACE achievement awards to acknowledge the best in all the categories — personal trainers, group fitness, fitness directors — and attached scholarships to them. Too often it is expected for the trainer to pay for the education out of his or her own pocket. This also shines the light on the career potential of fitness. Identifying and creating a platform for the career is really part of our role at ACE. Personal trainers now represent such a large portion of the industry's revenue, that it is more important to treat it as a professional business.

Are clubs doing their part to foster career growth from the fitness staff?

Well, there is more doing it today than there were three years ago. Fitness is not a job where you are going to come in and make $100,000 right off the bat. The projection over the next three to five years is that the demand requirement for the fitness professionals will double — that's another 200,00 to 250,000.

Where will you find the bodies?

We are cultivating some relationships right now where we feel we can draw from. One of those is with the International Association of Firefighters. There is a lot of crossover there, because of their involvement in fitness.

We are also looking at colleges and universities. It is a direct task we have to attach tour assets to curriculums, so people are not only getting a degree in exercise science they are getting a certification as well. Our industry is going to recognize a certification before a degree. So if we certify them at the same time they get the degree they come out of school more market relevant.

You mentioned 300-plus certifying organizations, can they all survive?

There is more than enough room in this industry for seven, eight or even 10 organizations to provide service. People want a choice in today's environment.

How do those 10 or so education organizations shake out?

There is a chance that we can get into some alliances and cooperative ventures in the future. People who are keeping their eye on the ball and listening to club owners will realize that the quickest path to a truly professional industry may be through cooperation. If someone has the best continuing education then that's fine, I don't have to spend money to redevelop that. We can team to drive, purpose and position that. If another group has the best certification, let's do the same thing there. I think over the next six months we are going to see some tremendous messages grow out of these types of alliances. That will leave the best and most active groups standing apart from the rest of the 300 or so groups.

How does a small, non-profit company develop the recognition it needs to become a leader?

We have been getting good media hits on our research. This helps because we are going beyond the trade and touching the consumer. This brings up the awareness of ACE so over time they will put two and two together and realize that an ACE-certified trainer or club is associated with that consumer group they read about in USA Today. That's part of ACE's mission to provide accurate and unbiased information to help combat some of the misinformation about fitness that is prevalent in the mainstream media. This is isn't always an easy task for a little $10 million organization. I'd love some government subsidies or some corporate funding. And we get what we can, I'm as good of a beggar as you'll find when it comes to ACE and Operation FitKids.

Do you see new certifications being added as demographics shift?

We will do research on a market segment, such as older adults, before we invest in a certification. Because of the cost we don't want to build something just because it is the hot topic right now. The research we did on this group showed that they don't need a new certification but need accurate information from trusted groups. So what they really need is certificates of advanced standing and information on how to deal with certain special populations. I think where the industry has matured is that they realize they don't need 16 different certifications to be a highly — trained professional. A doctor has only MD following his or her name. They don't need the whole alphabet to prove their skill, and neither should fitness professionals.

You mentioned Operation FitKids, would you fill us in on that project?

I created Operation FitKids together when Arnold Schwarzenegger came to me and asked me to help get kids more fit. At that time it was just putting equipment into facilities to re-energize physical education and give educators the tools they needed. Just like a business educator would have a computer, a physical educator needs equipment and technology. But it's only gotten worse. There is less physical education and more overweight and inactive kids than ever before.

Is there a way for to draw these kids and overweight adults in?

Yes. But we have to take a stand. It is hard. But it comes down to values and teaching cause and effect — both positive and negative. But that is in a perfect world. When you are trying to run a business, service members, keep staffs happy, and stay profitable. It is tough to really focus on the big picture.

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