Feature Article - January 2016
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Experience & Education

The Importance of Training in Improving Safety

By Joe Bush

The 2016 ACSM Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends Report is out, and while the headlines usually focus on exercise methods and equipment and gadgets, the most important trends are buried at Nos. 5 and 6.

The emphasis on educated, certified and experienced fitness professionals is fifth and personal training is sixth, as chosen by a survey field comprised of 25 percent part- or full-time personal trainers. The reason for their lofty status in the 10th-year report supervised by Walt Thompson is not so much their use privately and by businesses, but the rising oversight of the quality of their training.

It's not safe to use fitness professionals who are not educated or experienced, and the movement against quacky certifications is trending, Thompson said. Washington, D.C., is the furthest along in municipalities recognizing the need for regulation of those who make money teaching people to be fit, while there are new organizations that are accrediting certifications for some layer of trust and vetting.

Safety is crucial within facilities as well, with a specialized category for climbing gyms.

"What frightens me the most is there is no regulation of the fitness trainer industry, really no regulation in the health fitness industry," said Thompson, associate dean of graduate studies and research in the College of Education and Human Development at Georgia State University. "You and I by the end of this conversation can get online, pay our money and be certified by half a dozen personal trainer organizations, but it would be meaningless.

"There's no experience, there's no education, and by this afternoon you and I could open up a storefront anywhere in the country and call ourselves personal trainers."

It's a battle being waged among fitness companies employing those with credentials that may end up being useless, insurance companies and legislators, and it's only just begun. Will each municipality pass its own standard? Each state? Will it become national law? Thompson's concern is the safety of consumers; their health and their money can be compromised by phony and shoddy training and certifications.

Injury, untoward behavior and snake-oil cash grabs are all threats to those who are merely trying to better their well-being. As of now, there is no penalty for operating a fitness business without proper credentials.

"The biggest danger is anybody can do it at any time without any regulation," Thompson said. "I've gone into gyms where they've called their trainers 'exercise physiologists,' which is as bad or worse than calling yourself a personal trainer without any kind of education and experience. But that's what they're doing because there's no regulation against it.

"They hire a bunch of exercise physiologists who may or may not have a college degree."

Government at any level is beginning to move on the issue. D.C. passed a law requiring a board of physical therapists to craft regulations, which were to be reviewed then made into law, but it's run into opposition from those who feel therapists are not a neutral party because personal trainers are their competition.

Just as crucially, accreditation organizations have recently attracted notice and membership as well. Thompson says they are a good place to start when judging the background of fitness professionals. Are their certifications legitimate?

The Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP) has formed the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), a list of all fitness professionals certified by organizations that have a third-party accreditation with the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA). Institutions, companies and organizations in the business of teaching fitness professionals can be accredited by the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP), and, in turn, the NCCA.

Thompson says examples of NCCA-accredited certification bodies include the American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) and The Cooper Institute.

Current exercise certifications of member organizations listed in USREPS include Certified Personal Trainer, Certified Group Fitness Instructor, Certified Pilates Teacher, Advanced Health and Fitness Specialist, Exercise Specialist, Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist, and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist.

CREP's mission is, according to its website, "to secure recognition of registered exercise professionals for their distinct roles in medical, health, fitness and sports performance fields." CREP uses USREPS to advocate for industry standards and advise legislators, and help professionals travel with their universally accepted and respected certifications.

When asked how he would hypothetically filter fitness professionals for the purpose of training a family member, Thompson lists three requirements his expertise drives him to value: education institution, education degree, and experience.

"If I was to refer somebody for my son or daughter they would have to have an exercise science undergraduate degree, they would be certified by one of those NCCA-accredited organizations and they would have to have a pretty good bit of experience, and the experience would be the kind of exercise program I was referring my family member to," Thompson said. "For my dad, for example, I'd want to have somebody who had some experience working with older folks. If it was my grandson, I'd want somebody who had worked with children, or if he was interested in baseball, then sport-specific activities like baseball."

Climbing gyms require sport-specific training and oversight, and their surge in popularity over the past decade moves the safety aspect of the disciplines of wall climbing and bouldering into the light. The Climbing Business Journal reported climbing gym openings grew 10 percent in 2013 and 9 percent in 2014; at the end of 2014, CBJ reported 353 commercial climbing facilities in the United States and projected a 12 percent growth opening for 2015.