The Future of Personal Training May Be in Regulation, Certification and Integration

At one time, only celebrities, athletes and the wealthy could afford to work one-on-one with a coach or personal trainer. Now, personal trainers are embedded into nearly every health club, covering every price point and offering fitness advice via every form of consumer media.

Although the industry has evolved over the past 50 years, one thing has remained constant: its lack of regulation when it comes to personal trainers.

Since the 1980s, a number of states have tried to pass licensure and registration bills in an effort to regulate the industry. So far, the only area in the country that has come close is Washington, D.C. The District of Columbia adopted the Omnibus Health Regulation Amendment Act of 2013, which requires all local personal trainers to register with the mayor’s office. Other states, including Florida and Massachusetts, have continued to propose laws to license or regulate personal trainers with no success.

According to Kevin Steele, president of Personal Training Academy Global (PTA Global) and Personal Training on the Net (PTontheNet), a key reason why licensure has never passed is the cost that club owners would have to incur. Once licensed, trainers would be able to command a higher wage, which would present club owners with a major dilemma: “You’re either going to have to cut some of your staff to accommodate higher wages for licensed professionals, or you’re going to have to raise your prices and pass that along to your members,” Steele said. “Neither one of those answers is right or good for the club owner, and hence one of the main reasons licensure has never passed.”

Nevertheless, some people in the industry argue that licensure would offer credibility, as well as the assurance that every fitness professional has the qualifications, experience and technical expertise they need to provide safe and effective exercise programs.

In fact, the Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2018, put out by the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), ranked educated, certified and experienced fitness professionals as number six on the top 20 trends for 2018. One reason for this trend is that the personal training field is becoming increasingly competitive, with the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics predicting that employment of fitness trainers and instructors will grow by a faster-than-average 10 percent from 2016 to 2026. According to the ACSM survey, this growing market for fitness professionals has inspired more people both within and outside of the industry to call for some degree of regulation.

One of those people is survey author Walter Thompson, president of ACSM.

“It’s literally the wild, wild west out there,” he said. “[Becoming a personal trainer] requires three things: It requires a computer, access to the internet and a good credit card, and you could be certified by no less than six organizations.”

Many health club owners only hire personal trainers who have been certified by an organization that has been accredited by a third party, such as the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which is the accreditation body of the Institute of Credentialing Excellence. The International Association of Continuing Education and Training also accredits training programs that meet standards set by the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).

When health club owners hire trainers certified by these organizations accredited by third parties, they can be assured those trainers have met the minimum education standards needed to lead clients through exercise programs, Thompson said.

“Without that third-party accreditation, you could make up an exam, put it online, charge $59.99 for it, and it would be meaningless,” Thompson said.

To address these needs, the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals (CREP) organized eight major NCCA-accredited certifying bodies under one umbrella. These member organizations, collectively with CREP, established and maintain the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREPS), an international registry of the 140,000 professionals who hold certifications from agencies that are NCCA-accredited. Making the registry publicly available online holds all parties accountable and ensures consumers, employers and health care providers can make informed decisions when seeking the services of a health and fitness professional, the group said.

“It’s a great tool that’s going to get greater,” Thompson said of the registry, noting he hopes club owners and operators will use the database and only hire the personal trainers listed. “Then you know that [the trainer’s] certification actually means something.”

CREP’s mission is not dissimilar to that of other accountability organizations around the world, such as the International Confederation of Registers for Exercise Professionals (iCREPS), the European Register of Exercise Professionals (EREPS) and the United Kingdom's Register of Exercise Professionals (REPs).

CREP member organizations include the American Council on Exercise (ACE), the Academy of Applied Personal Training Education (AAPTE), ACSM, the Collegiate Strength and Conditioning Coaches Association (CSCCa), the National Council on Strength & Fitness (NCSF), The Cooper Institute, the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the Pilates Method Alliance (PMA).

However, despite access to such resources, some health club owners still don’t place emphasis on specific certifications—only that a trainer has a certification of some sort.

“It can be a two-day certification or it could be a six-week certification; they don’t care as long as you have one,” Steele told Club Industry. “Without any standards or regulations in place, clients won’t know if the person training them is actually qualified to do so unless they investigate for themselves. Or if and when they get injured.”

Thompson often receives calls for advice from attorneys representing trainers in personal injury lawsuits.

“There have been some very large judgments against organizations,” he said. “I'm talking about tens of millions of dollars against personal trainers. As more and more of these [lawsuits] go to court, and we have a record of them, clubs are going to have to take a look at who they hire.”

These lawsuits will help the industry, as a whole, recognize the growing need for regulation, Thompson said.

But what form would industry regulation take? Thompson isn’t sure.

“At the end of the day, if it's licensure that creates the necessary regulation within the industry, then yeah, I'd be all for it,” he said, “But it’s got to be the right legislation.”

Fitness Professionals and the Medical Community

With all the changes in the medical and healthcare landscape, the industry’s continued lack of regulation—and therefore, lack of credibility—is more troubling than ever to some people.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), nearly 900,000 Americans die prematurely from heart disease, cancer, chronic respiratory disease, stroke and unintentional injury  every year. Additionally, 20 to 40 percent of those deaths are preventable.

Although more medical professionals are recognizing the role of exercise in the treatment and prevention of these and other diseases, the lack of regulation within the fitness industry means many physicians are reluctant to refer their patients to a personal trainer.

Many medical doctors, such as Dr. James Lindberg, an internist at PersonalCare Physicians, believe the medical community would be more open to working with personal trainers who are licensed. (Lindberg is a presenting on “How Fitness Professionals Can Participate in the Executive Health Field” in the Wellness track at the 2018 Club Industry Show Oct. 24-26 at the Hilton Chicago.)

“If you had a board-certified personal trainer in medical fitness, that would be the kind of language that would really resonate with physicians,” he said.

Some fitness professionals are not so optimistic.

Mark Schneider, a Minneapolis-based strength coach who collaborates with physical therapists and chiropractors, doesn’t expect licensure will elevate the credibility of personal trainers among the general medical community. Rather, the willingness of physicians to collaborate with personal trainers will depend more on a generational shift, he said, in which doctors of the millennial generation would be more apt to cooperate.

“It won’t be based on licensure as much as the mentality of the practitioner,” he said.

Still, Lindberg predicts more physicians will be willing to collaborate with fitness professionals in the next five years, regardless of licensure. In fact, Lindberg works closely with personal trainers in his own practice and recognizes the value these professionals bring to the table.

“There’s a tremendous opportunity for trainers to become a key part of the healthcare continuum,” he said. “The physicians I know who have patients with personal trainers recognize the health benefits their patients get.”

If and when licensing occurs is anyone’s guess. However, industry leaders aren’t optimistic it will happen within the next five years.

“[Licensing] has been discussed and proposed over the last 20 years, and we haven’t seen it yet,” Steele said. “There’s a faction of the industry that’s pushing hard for it, so it could come within five years, but I really don’t know.”

Thompson said it will happen one day—perhaps soonest in the District of Columbia—but given that licensure is a state issue, it will take a while for all states to adopt legislation.

Thrifty Doesn’t Cut It

Predictions about how such changes could influence health club membership pricing vary greatly.

Steele, for one, doesn’t expect member pricing to go up dramatically in the next five years.

“If anything, we’re seeing pressure to come down,” he said, pointing specifically to mid-tier and lower-end clubs that charge members anywhere between $10 and $59 a month.

Todd Durkin, founder of Fitness Quest 10, San Diego, said people currently undervalue and undercut health and fitness services. The trainer, coach, motivational speaker and author would like to see studios and clubs charging more of a premium price.

“If you’re in a price war with another club and you just keep cutting prices, well, ultimately no one wins in that scenario, including the client,” he said. “You’ve cut expenses so much, you can’t even invest back into your club.”

Niche clubs and studios that can provide a complete mind, body and spirit experience will be the most successful in the next five years, Durkin said. You can’t offer your members a complete experience by being thrifty, he added.

“It’s important for studios and clubs to make sure that we value our time and to attract the types of people that we want to work with,” Durkin said.

Invest in Your People

One way that owners of health clubs and studios can invest in their business to help attract their ideal clients is to offer their team members continuing education opportunities, which can include live conferences, specialty certifications, seminars, mentorships and subscriptions to trade journals. Not only will investment in continuing education opportunities help health clubs and studios retain staff members, but it also will keep the team on top of the skills and trends they need to provide the best possible service to clients.

Trainers of the future will be more holistic by integrating coaching, nutrition and other wellness knowledge into their repertoire, Steele said. This will also allow club owners to leverage staff expertise while minimizing payroll via combining various roles and responsibilities.

Barring economic downturn, Steele said he does not envision club owners reducing their operating budgets to accommodate credentialed trainers.

“[T]raditionally, trainers have typically worn multiple hats within a facility and are asked to assume other duties when they are not actually training a member or client,” he said. “This helps the owner or manager keep their payroll costs down and leverage labor.”