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IHRSA: A Standard-Bearer of Certification Standards

The recent increased national focus on the importance of prevention and wellness suggests that health clubs are now poised to gain members from nontraditional sources. Physicians are expected to write more “exercise prescriptions” for patients; insurance companies are attempting to control costs by implementing more robust wellness programs; and employers are rapidly embracing healthy workplace practices. A key question, therefore, is: “What will these new members be looking for in a club?”

Considering that many of these prospective members will likely be older, deconditioned, and/or simply new to the health club scene, a good bet is that finding a safe environment for exercise will be a top concern.

To address this issue, an industry initiative is presently under way to develop a voluntary certification that would enable club operators to affirm their commitment to providing a safe facility for exercise and, then, to effectively market that assurance to current and potential members.

The process of drafting the initiative, now in its fourth year, is spearheaded by NSF International, a world leader in standards-development for public health and safety. NSF has convened a group of 20 industry stakeholders, known officially as the Joint Committee on Health/Fitness Facilities, to develop standards that may be used to create a voluntary facility certification. Represented on the committee are facility operators, certifying groups, individuals with disabilities, academics, attorneys, and insurance groups.  

The express intent of the standards is “to assist in providing a safe environment for those who engage in the activities and programs offered by health/fitness facilities.”

The proposed standards encompass several topics, including preactivity screening; orientation; risk-management and emergency policies, including the purchase of an automated external defibrillator (AED); qualifications for professional staff and independent contractors; facility construction; safety equipment; operating practices; and signage.

IHRSA accepted the invitation to participate as a member of the Joint Committee only after being assured that all IHRSA members would have the opportunity to participate in the process and make their voices heard through the public-comment process.

IHRSA’s participation on the Joint Committee is guided by five principles:

1. Certification standards should be reflective of current responsible industry practice.

2. Certification should grow the health club industry by increasing consumer confidence in the safety of certified facilities.

3. Certification should attract positive attention from the medical community, including an increase in the number of patient referrals to health clubs.

4. Certification should attract positive attention from employers, insurance companies, and other potential third-party payers.

5. Certification standards must be practical.

To date, the Joint Committee hasn’t produced a set of standards that’s obtained the consensus required for adoption. In October 2009, a draft put to the ballot before the Joint Committee failed on a vote of 10 yeas and nine nays (a two-thirds majority is required for passage), and received 66 objections from the committee. More recently, in June, a second draft failed on a vote of nine yeas and eight nays, while attracting only 14 objections. IHRSA voted against both drafts, but remains committed to the process of creating an appropriate voluntary facility certification.

During each balloting period, the public is encouraged to offer comments to the committee, which, in turn, must be addressed by the committee chairperson.

According to Joe Moore, IHRSA’s president and CEO, the voluntary certification process has to be developed with input from IHRSA members. “A voluntary certification process could be a great opportunity for many of the association’s member clubs,” says Moore, “but only if the standards make sense for the industry. It’s crucial for all interested IHRSA members to get involved, provide feedback, and share their expertise.”

The committee has begun work on a new draft, but the next vote hasn’t been scheduled.