How should certifications evolve?
By Lisa Liddane
It has indelibly altered the landscape of fitness instruction. It has clearly evolved to a basic qualification for employment. It is undoubtedly what consumers expect to find behind a fitness professional's name. But what's less clear is whether certification has achieved its original purpose: to ensure that consumers find a safety net of quality instruction. The word that bubbles to the surface in any discussion about certification among industry insiders is confusion. At times, it seems there are more questions than answers about the role of certification. Some observers say certification has reached critical mass. With an estimated 250 certifying organizations, it's difficult for employers to sort out which ones best prepare trainers and instructors for work. Others suggest that, with so many basic and specialty certifications, instructors and trainers are overloaded with requirements. The time and cost needed to maintain so many certifications may be turning people away from the profession when recruiting staff is a director's toughest challenge. Still others say that because the industry lacks a system of self-regulation and accountability of its certified members, it's too easy for personal fitness trainers and group exercise instructors to get away with mediocre or improper instruction. Certification is here to stay. Regardless of its shortcomings, many agree that it is still important. How to piece together the role of certification with the knowledge and experience that make for quality instruction is the balancing act facing fitness today.
The Certification Balance
July-August 2003 IDEA Health & Fitness Source
HOW DID CERTIFICATION START? Injury prevention was the genesis of certification, industry watchers say. "Certification started in the mid-1980s, when the exercise boom was in full swing," says Karla Overturf, chair of the IDEA group fitness committee, who teaches in Tucson, Arizona. "Injury rates among participants began to go up." Instructors were also sustaining injuries, pointed out Laura Gladwin, MS, chair of the board of certification and training for the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA). "There were no rules, regulations or guidelines for instructors to follow. Everyone did their own thing to get involved in a very popular sport--aerobic dance exercise." Researchers tracked the rise in dance-exercise-related injuries in studies, Gladwin says. The results led some industry groups to develop education and certification programs. "IDEA Foundation, now the American Council on Exercise CERTIFICATION means a person has passed an examina(ACE), was one of the first to offer certification," Overturf tion. The exam is the "certification." Exams are currently explains. "It was a multiple-choice test, given at many locaadministered in person, at testing centers and over the tions around the U.S. on the same date. AFAA also began a Internet. Beyond a written test, some have a practical certification around this time, but it had a workshop format component that requires candidates to demonstrate followed by a written and practical/movement exam. During skills. Usually, continuing education credits (CECs) or this time, many smaller companies sprang up--either to help continuing education units (CEUs) are required to maininstructors prepare for the big exams and/or to award their tain or renew a certification. own certifications." CECS and CEUS are awarded for the number of hours Certification was a turning point for the industry, according of continuing education in workshops or seminars to Overturf. "People began to perceive fitness instruction no offered by approved providers. longer as a hobby but as a legitimate career." Until then, eduCERTIFICATE PROGRAMS are often found in college extension programs, but are available elsewhere. cation and formal training had not been included in hiring Typically, certificate programs consist of a curriculumcriteria. Personal fitness trainers were hired based on how based series of classes. Exams are administered by the sculpted they looked. Group exercise instructors were hired teacher during and after each class. A candidate who mostly because of their ability to choreograph and teach aercompletes a program with a passing grade is awarded a obics routines. certificate, with no continuing education required. Certification changed that. Today, most fitness staff cannot CERTIFICATES OF COMPLETION are given after most conget hired without it.
tinuing education programs, whether they are in-person conferences/seminars or correspondence courses. If programs are approved for CECs/CEUs, these count toward maintaining a certification. TRAINING in academics and practical application may be part of a certification/certificate program or separate from it.
July-August 2003 IDEA Health & Fitness Source
WHAT IS A CERTIFICATION? "Certification is really a testing process that identifies whether an individual has the knowledge base and skills to provide proper exercise instruction," says Cedric Bryant, PhD, vice president of educational services at ACE. When a trainer or an instructor says, "I'm certified," potential clients expect him or her to be sufficiently prepared to help them achieve certain exercise goals. Yet, some people contend that certification is like a student driver's license. One can drive, but not necessarily well. "Certification is important, but you need more than that to be a good personal fitness trainer. It's baseline knowledge. [Becoming] an excellent teacher or trainer--that takes a lot of training and experience over time," believes Josie Gardiner, a Boston-based personal fitness trainer and 2002 IDEA Fitness Instructor of the Year. Lawrence Biscontini, MA, group exercise manager at the Golden Door Spa in Puerto Rico, agrees. "Nobody can learn all there is in one day, but we all have to demonstrate competency at some level in some specific testing period," he says. "We all know supercertified individuals who cannot cue their way out of a paper bag, yet on paper they're untouchable. Certification is a place to start, and then the practical application through experience really adds the quality."
WHY ARE THERE SO MANY CERTIFICATIONS? As the demand for certification rose in the '90s, hundreds of fitness certification providers fashioned their own programs. The result was a glut that continues today. While the number 250 is widely quoted, it's hard to say just how many certifications there actually are. They include not only basic-knowledge certifications for group exercise instructors and personal fitness trainers but also specialty certifications in group exercise formats such as yoga, indoor cycling and Pilates. Personal trainers have specialty certifications focusing on older adults, weight management, postrehabilitation and other topics. The rationale for these specialty certifications was fair enough: Basic certification did not cover the movements, instruction techniques and, in some cases, equipment that specialty formats required. Additionally, some health clubs and fitness centers provided their own private-label certifications. A number of large fitness chains and small family-owned gyms required staff to acquire their company certifications. Fitness businesses also used trademarked, licensed or proprietary formats that required instructors to undergo additional certification. Indoor cycling and group strength training formats set to music are examples. This led to instructors needing multiple "brand" certifications to get jobs. An instructor trained and certified in one brand of indoor cycling, for example, sometimes couldn't qualify for a Shown are the percent of IDEA-member managers and job at another health club without obtaining certification in a owners who use these criteria for hiring, promotion or different brand. pay. Other criteria were continuing education, years in The boom may be the result of a combination of several facorganization, personality and type of session/class. tors. As certification became an accepted criterion for hiring or compensation, fitness professionals needed to be certified. HIRING OR PROMOTION CRITERIA With the explosion of several highly specialized exercise Years' Degree Certification Experience formats like Pilates and indoor cycling, employers required fitness/program director 57% 78% 72% instructors to acquire more specific training before teaching. group exercise coordinator 38 79 75 They needed a certification to prove the training. personal trainer 55 95 72 And there's money to be made in certification. Certifying bodgroup exercise instructor 23 94 79 ies and health clubs generate revenue by providing certifications--from the study materials, classes, test fees and renewal fees.
BASE PAY CRITERIA
Certification's Impact on Staffing
IS THE ISSUE CERTIFICATION Certification Degree fitness/program director 55% 69% OR TRAINING? 62 group exercise coordinator 31 Training or certification is a matter of semantics, feel Overturf 50 80 personal trainer and others. "I'd like to see the emphasis shift from `certified' in group exercise instructor 23 71 specialty classes like indoor cycling to `trained,' with the expectation of renewing only one or two basic certifications with a Source: 2002 IDEA Fitness Industry Compensation Survey. wide array of CEC credits." Marcos Prolo, group exercise director and instructor at The Sports Club/Irvine, agrees. "Remember that many programs out there call their workshops a `certification' when, in most cases, they should label it a `training course.'" In some quarters, certification appears to convey more legitimacy and importance on a r
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