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Raising the Bar for Personal Trainers

The issue of raising and setting standards for personal trainers is coming to the front and center again after several recent actions. Certification agencies are meeting with the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) on third-party accreditation, and Purdue University now offers a four-year degree program for personal trainers.

Some of the certifying agencies have been meeting since 2002 to discuss how to raise the standards of personal trainers by raising their own standards. However, other certifying groups came later to the discussion because they were initially unaware of the meetings. Regardless of when they joined in the discussion, the groups are dealing with a weighty recommendation from IHRSA that by December 2005 club owners hire personal trainers with certifications from a certifying agency that has been accredited by a third-party accrediting organization. IHRSA has named the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) as that third-party accrediting organization. As a result, many of the certifying agencies are pursuing accreditation through NCCA. However, some of the certifying agencies have taken exception to the use of NCCA and would like at least one more accreditation group to be accepted by IHRSA.

About 20 of the approximately 74 certifying agencies met with IHRSA in Chicago prior to the Club Industry show in October to discuss the issue.

“Accreditation is the foundation of the house that needs to be built,” said Ron Clark, president and founder of the certifying agency National Federation of Personal Trainers. Clark attended the October meeting. “We need to get through this and establish some sort of coherent organization to address not just the selfish issues but to address serious industry issues that will forward our industry and attract people to our profession.”

After all, Clark said, accreditation is not about the certifying bodies. “It is about the trainers and the public,” he said. “The NCCA is responsible for certifying agency National Federation of Personal Trainers. Clark attended the October meeting. “We need to get through this and establish some sort of coherent organization to address not just the selfish issues but to address serious industry issues that will forward our industry and attract people to our profession.”

After the IHRSA meeting, many of the certifying groups held a separate meeting in which they decided to research and write three study papers on topics of concern to them about accreditation, including the merits of NCCA, any modifications that should occur to NCCA policies, and the merits of additional accreditation bodies. The group would like the papers to be presented to a small panel that would make recommendations to IHRSA about the topics discussed in the study papers. While details about the panel haven't been set yet, the certifying agencies discussed the possibility that IHRSA would choose the panel, but the panel would be independent of IHRSA and the certification groups.

The certifying agencies discussed setting a schedule for presentation of the study papers to the panel, for panel recommendations to go to IHRSA and for a deadline for IHRSA to consider the panel's recommendations. The certification groups did not set a schedule for these deadlines at the meeting. The certifying groups also discussed establishing a consortium to look at broader health issues.

The reason for the certifying agency meetings and the need to set standards stem from several issues. As the weight of the general population continues to increase, Medicare has removed a sentence in its guidelines stating that obesity is not a disease. This opens up the possibility that Medicare may in the future deem that weight-loss methods (including health club memberships and personal training sessions) are reimbursable. Third-party insurers could follow that lead (or lead Medicare to it), especially since a growing number of private insurers are offering their members discounted health club memberships.

“By setting standards, it would be more likely that insurance companies would reimburse (for personal training),” said Mitch Schroder, owner of Better Bodies Inc., a personal training studio in Zionsville, IN. “We won't be reimbursed by insurance companies until we have real, viable, credible certifications — and that would include a degree as well.”

Liability concerns are also moving the issue forward.

“Club owners are hanging out there,” said Clark. “They are on a limb for liability purposes and insurance costs are getting higher. IHRSA has club owners out there that are trying to minimize their liability and IHRSA has a responsibility to their members.”

Club owners are concerned about protecting their members, their personal trainers and themselves from injuries and liability issues that may stem from those injuries. Better-trained personal trainers with quality certifications can help decrease the possibility of injuries and resultant lawsuits, said Clark.

Schroder is concerned about liability issues, but he's more concerned about the perception that the public has of personal trainers.

“The profession will not grow if we have no accountability,” Schroder said, continuing by saying that club owners should not settle for inferior certifications from their personal trainers. “It's critical for our future to do it right.”

As a former physical therapist, Schroder saw people come in who had been injured working with a personal trainer.

“I know many people with certifications who don't have credible certifications,” he said. “They cause injuries, and it injures our profession.”

Schroder requires his trainers to have a bachelor's degree and a master's degree in a related field in addition to NSCA and until we have real, viable, credible certifications — and that would include a degree as well.”

Getting those degrees may be easier now that some universities are offering degrees for personal trainers. Purdue University will offer a four-year degree for personal training starting in spring 2005.

“The faculty and staff here didn't at first understand the personal training business,” said Ken Baldwin, a former health club owner and the assistant director of fitness at Purdue University. “When they learned that people don't need college programs to be certified, they were shocked.”

The goal of Purdue's Health and Kinesiology Department is for the profession to become college and academic oriented.

“We did not sense that there was a set of guidelines of excellence or accreditation that was nationally accepted,” said Roger Seehafer, professor of health promotion at Purdue University. “We were also aware of the increasing sensitivity to the legal and related implications in the field.”

Students will walk out of the program with an undergraduate degree in health and fitness with a concentration in personal fitness training. During the students' junior and senior years, they will receive hands-on experience in the form of eight, six-week rotations in cardiac rehab, physical therapy, athletic training, senior fitness, commercial health clubs, children's fitness, corporate fitness and the non-profit sector.

Baldwin expects that within four years, the program will be overseeing 50-80 students, and the program's students will be some of the best trainers in the nation.

“Our hope is that as a better product is available at the national scene, this will attract the attention of the profession so that given a choice, they (club owners) will go with a more qualified professional and raise not only the levels or performance of professionals in the field but also begin to change the public image of personal trainers,” Seehafer said.

Raising the image of personal trainers is something that the certification agencies agreed was important to them as well. In addition, some certifying agencies fear that if the industry doesn't set standards for itself, the federal government will step in to set those standards.

However, many of the certifying agencies and IHRSA agree that those standards are better set by those within the industry.

“Fundamentally, IHRSA is opposed to unnecessary government regulation in our industry,” said Bill Howland, spokesperson for IHRSA. “That is not our ultimate goal on any front. We believe there is a way for clubs, the private sector to work so business goals are met and the public interest is protected.”

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