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Certifiably Safer in the Fitness Industry

By David L. Herbert


In the January, 2015 issue of Recreation Management, Kelli Ra Anderson authored an article on why and how personnel certification in the recreation and health/fitness industry improves safety. While her effort was ambitious, further information needs to be presented to more completely portray what has happened over the past 20 years in the health and fitness industry as to fitness professional certifications.

In the early 2000s, the International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), the largest fitness trade association in the United States, perceived a need to elevate the qualifications of fitness professionals. That effort, at least in part, was driven by the number of claims and suits which were being lodged against personal trainers in the years preceding IHRSA's effort. Some of those lawsuits garnered considerable media attention, which focused on the perceived lack of professional training for these fitness personnel.

Due to the foregoing, IHRSA began to evaluate the issue. In 2006, IHRSA issued a final Board of Directors recommendation on the matter to its member health and fitness clubs. This action ultimately recommended that clubs hire only personal trainers certified by certification organizations that were accredited either by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or an organization recognized by the U.S. Department of Education (USDE) or the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

In compliance with this recommendation, the organization that many health and fitness professional certifiers turned to for accreditation was the Distance Education Accrediting Commission (DEAC), formerly known as the Distance Education and Training Council (DETC). Others opted for accreditation by the NCCA. Organizations such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) chose to have their certification programs accredited by the NCCA, while other organizations such as the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA) and the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA) chose to become accredited by the DEAC. Certification organizations that have been accredited by NCCA have certified approximately 160,000 or more fitness professionals according to publicly reported information,i while DEAC accredited fitness professional certification organizations have certified more than 500,000 fitness professionals in the United States and at least 73 other countries.ii

There are differences between these accredited certification programs. For example, the certification process for NCCA-accredited fitness professional certifiers involves only the successful completion of a written examination for health and fitness professionals without any specified prerequisites for education and without any hands-on practical training or testing program to evaluate a certification candidate's ability to actually carry on fitness screening/prescription/leadership/supervision activities. Many NCCA-accredited fitness professional certifiers require that applicants be 18 years of age, high school graduates or the equivalent and have completed a hands-on certification in cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR)iii. DEAC-accredited certifiers have similar requirements but have specified and established educational programs leading to the actual written and in some cases, practical examinations required of successful certification candidates. AFAA, for example, a DEAC-accredited fitness professional certifier, requires the completion of practical training and testing as part of its certification process. AFAA's written examination is also accredited by Vital Research of Los Angeles, which accreditation is in addition to AFAA's DEAC accreditation. AFAA is therefore dually accredited for both its written and practical examinations.iv

Other organizations such as CrossFit have had their fitness professional training program examined by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI), which has issued an accreditation to CrossFit demonstrating that its trainer program represents quality education and training. While such ANSI accreditation is for a certificate rather than certification, it is not the only other kind of credential for fitness professionals that is available in the United States. The National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) also registers personal fitness trainers who have opted to take and pass NBFE's written national board examination and its practical test.v

The focus of all these credentialing programs was to provide third-party evaluation and approval of the demonstrated knowledge and in some cases performance of fitness professionals based on established and defined professional working responsibilities and duties. The hope was that such qualifications would lead to better service to consumers and therefore fewer complaints and thus fewer claims and lawsuits.vi However, more may be needed.

Statistics on injuries compiled from 2007 to 2012 demonstrate that there has been nearly a 60 percent increase in exercise-related injuries during that time.vii In this regard, some may ask: Has certification of fitness professionals failed because of the increase in injuries to consumers? Is additional training needed for fitness professionals? Are the injuries related to the fact that more consumers are exercising and therefore there are more injuries? Are consumers who are engaging in exercise older and/or unhealthier than their counterparts of 2006? Are personal trainers prescribing too much/too soon for these consumers? Do personal trainers lack proper skills in screening, prescription, leadership and supervision? The answers to these questions are not clear, but if professionals are not providing proper screening, prescription, leadership and supervision due to their own lack of required and tested practical training, the present certification system needs to be examined and policies changed.