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Certifying Quality with Product Showcase

If you were around at the dawn of the modern health and fitness industry, you may recall that there were no educational programs for trainers, no certifying organizations, and no continuing education credits (CECS) ... And, if you were on the scene, say, 20 years ago, you know that, by then, there were ... and have a sense of what they brought to bear.

And today?

So much more, so much better!

But the process is an ongoing one, and the challenges not only linger, but, in some ways, proliferate. “Education and credentialing for the exercise professional is following the same path of evolution and maturation that we’ve seen in many other emerging professions,” points out Graham Melstrand, vice president of corporate affairs for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). “Health and fitness professionals are increasingly perceived as well positioned to assume a leadership role in the promotion of active, healthy lifestyles. ... This recognition brings a corresponding increase in the scrutiny of qualifications and standards that apply to the professional.”

In a sense, everyone involved—educators, trainers, club owners, and even club members—have caught sight of a higher standard and are now pursuing it.

A host of factors is driving the inevitable: More people are pursuing wellness in health clubs. They’re better educated, more discerning, and more demanding than ever. A growing number are interested in personal and/or specialized training. Americans (and others) are grappling with rising levels of obesity and other lifestyle-related diseases. Healthcare costs continue to climb. Preventive healthcare is coming into its own. Clubs are investigating and/or implementing the medical model. Consumer protection is a pressing priority.

“We believe that personal trainers are on the front line in the fight against rising obesity rates and healthcare costs,” observes Andrew Wyant, the president of the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM).

“Establishing consistent standards and a more proactive healthcare approach—one that embraces doctors, insurance companies, and fitness professionals—is going to benefit everyone.”

But problems—or, rather, opportunities for improvement—remain.

There’s a host of certifying agencies (more than 300 at last count). The value of the accreditations they confer is sometimes unclear, both to club owners and the public. Ascertaining how credible they are may not be easy (the word “transparency” has recently come into vogue). The checking of the validity and currency of a trainer’s certifications is time-consuming and uneven. The enforcement of standards may be inconsistent.

The achievements

The established and respected education/certifying agencies—the ones whose names everybody knows— have already done much to elevate the professionalism of the industry, ensuring that club members receive safe, effective, and satisfying services. In doing so, they’ve also polished the reputations of trainers and clubs, alike. They not only continue to do so today, but, it seems, insist on doing even more.

They protect the integrity of their current offerings. They introduce new ones to address emerging needs. They find easier, more convenient, and otherwise better ways to share their expertise. They employ their people, programs, influence, and voices to tackle the issues of clarity, credibility, and quality.

For many fitness professionals, the learning process starts in college.

“We take a variety of academic measures to ensure a first-class education for our students,” says Amy Ashmore, the academic program director of the Sports and Health Sciences Program at American Public University (APU). “This includes developing high-quality curriculum and courses that are competitive with those of any institution, offering study-concentration areas in our B.S. and M.S. degree programs, and providing career-preparedness courses.

“Our program,” she says, “has been designed with great thought to the future of sports and health sciences, and to our students’ current needs.”

“A master’s degree is great,” adds Karyn Gallivan, an adjunct faculty member in the APU program, “but, in our field, it’s not an industry standard of competency. A degree and a certification represent the best way to ensure a safe environment for consumers.” Gallivan strongly urges all of her students to obtain both.

Post-graduation, the education/certifying providers, employers, and one’s own professional peers continue to play teacher in countless ways. Groups such as the Aerobics and Fitness Association of American (AFAA), American Council on Exercise (ACE), IDEA Health & Fitness Association (IDEA), National Exercise and Trainers Association (NETA), and National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) offer an encyclopedic range of options (detailed on their respective Websites).

“AFAA has earned its 30-year reputation as a leader in safe and effective exercise programming,” notes Kathy Stevens, the association’s director of education. “We’ve always offered our certified trainers a variety of useful tools and protocols to help them adequately evaluate exercises and training programs, as well as modify them, to meet the needs of the individuals they work with, whether it’s it in a group or one-on-one setting. ... We offer a comprehensive series of onsite and online workshops and self-study courses.”

Todd Galati, the director of credentialing for ACE, expresses that organization’s equally serious intentions. “ACE takes multiple steps to ensure that its certified trainers meet the high standards required for them to work as well-qualified fitness professionals,” he explains. “Certifications are awarded only to individuals who meet all eligibility requirements and successfully pass the related examination. They must recertify every two years by completing a minimum of 20 hours of ACE-approved continuing education, maintaining current adult CPR and (in the U.S. and Canada) AED standing, and remaining in good stand- ing with ACE and the ACE Code of Ethics.”

Like its colleagues, NETA both delivers and demands a lot. “We offer a wide variety of continuing education opportunities, including live workshops, NETA Fit Fest events, online e-learning modules, and an extensive selection of home study courses,” chronicles Michael Iserman, the group’s director of certification. “And NETA personal trainers and group exercise instructors are required to complete continuing education in order to maintain their credentials—specifically, 20 CECs every two years.” They’re also expected to abide by NETA’s Professional Code of Ethics.

“Personal trainers have a critical role to play in the continuum of care for millions of people around the world,” reflects Levi Boren, the NSCA's senior director of certification, which clearly intends to help achieve that goal. “An NSCA-Certified Personal Trainer must demonstrate both initial competence to perform the role of personal trainer via a rigorous examination process, and ongoing competence through continuing education activities. The program includes a practical exam, facilitated by a group of highly skilled instructors, that’s one of the most rigorous in the industry.”

The challenges

Providing a sound and solid foundation for the education of fitness professionals is, of course, the raison d’être of all these organizations, but they’re also active—and more so each year, it seems—in pushing the envelope. They’re identifying areas for improvement, as well as promising new opportunities, taking appropriate steps where possible, and, when it’s not possible, focusing their attention—and that of others—on the problems.

For example: sensitive to one of the lingering concerns about certifications, IDEA put forth a remedy. “One of the most significant issues over the past several years has been transparency with respect to the qualifications earned by professionals,” says CEO Peter Davis. “We created IDEA FitnessConnect, a directory of fitness professionals, in 2010 to help push for this transparency.” Then, in 2013, IDEA added ClubConnect, which allows club operators to search the database of more than 250,000 IDEA-certified fitness professionals to review their credentials.

“This verification has become especially important for the 3,000 clubs that have used ClubConnect since its launch,” says Davis.

Other issues that are being discussed, and, sometimes, debated heatedly, are the lack of understanding—on the part of the public, the medical community, insurers, government agencies, and others— of what certification is all about; the proliferation of providers and certifications (“Too many, in my opinion,” says Gallivan); the employment by clubs of non-certified trainers; and the credentials of the certifying body themselves (i.e., who accredited them?).

“There’s a lot of confusion regarding the use of the term ‘certification,’” acknowledges Boren.

Wyant is concerned about substandard expertise. “With so many emerging exercise theories and non-accredited certifications, many fitness professionals may not have a working knowledge of exercise science, human movement, or kinesiology,” he suggests. “This can create inconsistencies in client success, which, ultimately, leads to a lack of confidence in the profession.”

“There are many self-proclaimed fitness experts with no formal education and no certifications who own or work in fitness centers,” seconds Gallivan.

And Iserman indicates that clubs themselves could also do more. “Frankly,” he says, “I don’t believe that many club operators and fitness managers are proactive either when it comes to identifying the needs of their patrons or to guiding their team’s continuing education accordingly. In my observation, many owners, operators, and managers don’t even monitor their team’s certifications regularly to ensure that they’re still valid.”

These and other matters are under consideration, the subject of consultations, intellectual inquiries in-progress. The players in the process are of mixed and, sometimes, opposed opinions, but the solutions—well, despite the slight Sturm und Drang, they’re “evolving.”

What all of the players agree upon is the important role that qualified, competent, fitness professionals play in helping individuals lead healthy lives and reducing healthcare costs.

“First and foremost, our mission is to ensure that people have access to well-qualified health and fitness professionals and health coaches, and science-based information and resources about safe and effective physical activity, so they can establish patterns of active, healthy behavior, allowing them to live fit lives,” concludes Melstrand.


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