Juggling & TrackingYour Fitness Certifications

The legal and professional implications of failing to keep all your certifications current may come back to haunt you.

our fitness director at the club just called with a reminder that one of your primary fitness certifications is about to expire. Somewhere in a pile of papers, you have the renewal notice sent by the certifying board. You meant to track your renewal, but somehow it just got away from you. Now you might be pulled from working with clients unless you hurry to update that primary certification.

You know it’s necessary to stay up-to-date with your certifications, but do you really know why? What makes that piece of paper so important to you, your club, your clients—even the fitness industry itself?

The Legal Issues

Sean Riley, JD, MS, in Los Angeles, is both a licensed attorney and an exercise physiologist, which gives him a unique perspective on the necessity of staying certified (see his article “Is Your Club Compliant or Complacent?” in the January 2006 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal). “Certifications are incredibly important to maintain because, aside from a degree, [they are really] the only marker of a trainer’s legal basis for employment, absent the use of a license,” Riley explains. “The certification assumes that this person has completed some study and is qualified to work as such. If a certification is permitted to lapse, then that assumption no longer exists. Without a valid certification, that trainer no longer has a valid legal basis to distribute the exercise [instructions] he/she offers to clients.”

But what about all my experience? you may be wondering. According to Riley, experience is great, but it offers a fitness professional no legal entitlement or legal expertise. “Personal training and group instruction are not licensed professions, so there are no set standards that one must obey,” Riley says. “Current fitness industry standards, such as those set by certifying agencies, are merely suggestions on how to act, and not mandatory requirements. Therefore, in order to keep the fitness industry as litigation-free as possible, maintaining certifications is critical to assuring quality.”

Riley offers this example to illustrate his point: “If a client is injured due to a trainer’s professional negligence, then the absence of certification would be a legal minefield,” he says. “Legally, it wouldn’t matter if the trainer was going to be recertified in a week or so, or was late sending in the renewal paperwork.”

What would matter is whether the trainer had a proper certification at the time of the injury. So what would happen if the certification had lapsed at that time? Riley says, Watch out! “Without a legal basis for working with clients, the litigation floodgates would be opened.”

Riley emphasizes that legal protection for both you and the club owners is of paramount concern when it comes to staying certified. But there’s more to it than that, of course. When managers hire fitness professionals, they are not just wondering if you are a legal liability; they also want to know if you are a fitness asset. What does your certification mean to your boss?

Getting Hired

Many club managers consider a primary fitness certification merely a starting point for getting hired. As Helen Vanderburg, president of Heavens Fitness Limited, Fountain Park Health Club and HI Fitness Consulting Services in Calgary, Alberta, puts it, “We hire only certified instructors, which is clearly defined in our hiring policies and procedures. This is a base-level expectation that must be met in order to be part of our team.”

But why do so many clubs have this basic expectation? What does your certification represent to the club’s management? Wes Emmert, fitness director at the Rochester Athletic Club in Rochester, Minnesota, gives a manager’s perspective: “In order to be a personal trainer here, one must be certified by a nationally recognized fitness organization, as I feel that lends credibility to the personal trainer.” In other words, the steps you went through to get certified show that you have a professional attitude toward your work, which enhances your (and the club’s) reputation.

This credibility can help your club stand out from the crowd, especially in a competitive market. In Louisville, Kentucky, Lauren Eirk serves as group fitness director of the two Louisville Athletic Clubs. Eirk requires that all her fitness staff be certified; she feels that this higher standard gives her clubs a decided advantage over the less stringent competition. “Many facilities in this area do not require their instructors to keep current certifications,” she says. “From a competitive standpoint, Louisville Athletic Clubs stand out as having the best instructors, as their certifications are through organizations that are known to follow industry guidelines.”

Nancy Box works as the fitness director at Northwest Personal Training in Portland, Oregon. In addition to the liability and insurance implications, she offers another reason for hiring only certified instructors and trainers. Box feels that being certified indicates that prospective hires take pride in their education and achievements, since the process to become certified can be rigorous.

As the owner of Fitness Quest 10 in San Diego, Todd Durkin, MA, is very clear about his staffing expectations. “I require national certifications from a major, reputable organization, as well as a degree for personal trainers, strength and conditioning coaches and Pilates instructors,” says Durkin. “We have an in-house training program, but I do expect trainers to come with a certain background and credentials to have a foundation on which to build.”

But what if you are applying to a club that doesn’t require certification as a condition for employment? Most managers say that instructor or trainer candidates who are certified will have an advantage over those who are not.

“We encourage our group fitness instructors to have a certification, but it is no longer a requirement for employment,” says Janell Perez, group exercise manager for 24 Hour Fitness in the Seattle area. “Having [a certification] shows that you care about what you portray to people who come to you for guidance, and that you have an understanding of basic biomechanics and exercise physiology.”

Continued Growth and Learning

Getting a job is an important reason to be certified, but once you are working, it’s just as important to stay current in this ever-changing field by renewing your certification on a consistent basis. An instructor who became certified in 1986 would have a hard time fitting in as a professional in 2006 if she based her teaching solely on ’80s information! The actual renewal of your certification is just a marker; the knowledge and growth that take place during the renewal process are the goal.

“It is critical to continue learning at all phases of one’s career if you want to excel and be great,” says Durkin, who was named IDEA Personal Trainer of the Year in 2004. “Continuing education allows you to stay current in the field, see and feel changes and trends, and gain confidence. It also helps you gain the trust of your clientele as a professional. I certainly wouldn’t want my doctor to not stay current on new information and technology in the medical field. We as trainers should be no different. We are health professionals who possess the power to make profound changes in our clients’ health and well-being.”

Eirk looks at maintaining certification as a way to keep up with the industry and emerging trends. “The industry is always changing, and new information is constantly being found by researchers,” she says. “It’s important not to get complacent. As more and more instructors are specializing, [it would be easy to] get left behind and find yourself out of work. This industry is being taken a lot more seriously [than it was in past decades], and many talented, educated persons are competing for clients and classes.”

Staying employed and earning a professional reputation are two very important reasons to keep current with your certification, but there is yet another benefit: money. In most facilities, having a current certification is reflected in your pay.

“Having an educational piece is definitely rewarded,” says Perez. “Moving up in pay levels is directly [linked to] whether there is a certification aspect. [When I observe someone teaching], I can tell who has not attended workshops or done home-study continuing education. Being outdated is reflected in their delivery and presentation.”

Tracking Renewals

You work hard to achieve your certifications. But with so many types of certifications and specialty trainings now available, it can be hard to track all of them. Is there some “best way” to stay on top of this chore?

Although Riley insists that clubs and employees share responsibility for tracking certifications, many fitness managers believe it is up to the individual instructor or trainer to stay current. To assist in this process, some fitness managers do give their staff periodic reminders of expiration dates.

“As the leader of the team, it is very important I make sure every member of it is performing to the expectations and guidelines set by the industry and company,” says Box. “I always tell my staff that it’s their responsibility to maintain their certifications. I make suggestions that they mark their calendars or [flag their computer calendars] 30 to 60 to 90 days prior to expiration, so they have a mental trigger.”

Even though a primary certification is no longer mandatory for hiring at 24 Hour Fitness, Perez still tracks her instructors’ status on a monthly basis. “I review the list we keep in our database for two reasons: to ensure that people who are being paid at a certified rate remain qualified, and to encourage noncertified instructors to get a certification.” She then calls or sends an e-mail to remind teachers of their upcoming renewal dates. Although Perez tries to follow through with instructors, she feels that in the end it is the instructors’ own responsibility to renew their certifications. “Typically, there is one area group manager for every 8–10 clubs, which means there are at least 100 instructors to manage,” she explains. “Having teachers keep track of their expiration dates gives them that sense of ownership over their journey as an instructor.”

Durkin feels even more strongly that it is the responsibility of each instructor or trainer to track and maintain his or her certifications. “Our staff knows it is a requirement to have a current certification,” he says. “There is no reason why we as professionals can’t track our sessions and be responsible to [our industry’s] code of ethics. . . . There are so many ways to get continuing education credits [CECs] nowadays that there really should be no excuse for not getting in the mandatory amount.”

Depending on the approach taken where you work, maybe you’ll get a phone call or an e-mail reminding you of the date your certification expires—but don’t count on it! At many clubs, including the Louisville Athletic Clubs, instructors and trainers are simply taken off the teaching or training rotation when they let their certifications expire.

“If one of my instructors [lets his or her certification lapse], he or she is taken off the group fitness schedule,” says Eirk. “Once the instructor gets recertified, that teacher must start subbing and wait for an opening in the department. In addition, that person loses his/her complimentary membership and must become a paying club member [to continue using the facility].”

For most instructors and trainers, it has been common practice to wait for a renewal notice and then provide proof of continuing education and payment. This method isn’t 100% effective, though, especially if you don’t receive the renewal notice in time or haven’t attended enough courses to gain the required CECs.

Perhaps the industry is ready for a reminder service or program that would inform certified trainers and teachers about continuing education opportunities in their area and indicate how much time was left for renewal on specific certifications. This way, there would be less of a surprise and scramble at the last minute. Of course, there is no solution or program that will prevent procrastination!

The Grace Period

For a variety of reasons—not the least of which is procrastination—you may get into a situation where your certification lapses, and you need to know if you can renew late. Most major fitness certifying organizations do offer a grace period, which can range from 4 weeks to 6 months, but what does that grace period really mean? Mainly, it is an opportunity to save yourself the cost of getting recertified and the step of retaking the certification exam; to use this opportunity, you need to complete the renewal process before the grace period runs out. Some managers will still let you work with clients if your certification lapses temporarily, as long as you can show that you are making progress toward renewal. However, this can be a tricky grey area legally.

According to attorney Riley, being considered “still covered” by a certifying board and your boss is very different from being legally covered, if your certification has lapsed. “In a serious lawsuit, any shrewd attorney could use the existence of that grace period as evidence of noncertification,” warns Riley. “And the consequences could fall on the trainer or instructor, the fitness manager, the general manager and the corporation of any health club.”

The Role of Management

That’s why Riley insists it is in the best interests of both club management and the individual fitness professional to keep track of certification renewals.

“If a health club publishes or displays any information that claims its instructors or trainers are certified, but one of their certifications has lapsed, then a misrepresentation has been made to the client,” cautions Riley. “The general manager is responsible for the whole operation; the fitness manager is responsible for auditing certifications; and the trainer or instructor is liable because he or she had a legal duty to act in a professional manner. So the responsibility for maintaining certification should fall on the entire hierarchy of professionals in a fitness environment.”

Today’s computer software programs can be a real boon for managers when it comes to tracking staff certifications. For details on how to use one of these programs, see “Using Outlook for Tracking Purposes” on page 50. Those not comfortable working with this type of program can refer to “Other Tracking Tips” on page 49.

Whether your fitness manager has a formal, consistent system for tracking staff certification renewals or no tracking system at all, you share the responsibility for staying up-to-date on your knowledge and paperwork. It’s your manager’s duty to require you to stay certified as a prerequisite for working with clients, and it’s your duty to renew on time and provide proof of compliance. This cooperation will help further legitimize our industry. Or as Helen Vanderburg says, this united effort will help maintain our vision of being “the best of the best!” n

SIDEBAR: Additional Resources

For more information on the legal implications of maintaining

and tracking fitness certifications, see these IDEA articles:

Riley, S. 2005. Managing misrepresentation. IDEA Fitness Manager, 17 (2), 6–7.

Riley, S. 2006. Risk management: Is your club compliant or complacent? IDEA Fitness Journal, 3 (1), 44–51.

SIDEBAR: Other Tracking Tips

For those who do not use a software program like Outlook, fear not. There are other ways to track all those staff certifications. Most computers allow you to create a database that can be sorted by name or date, which is the method that works best for Janell Perez, group fitness manager for 24 Hour Fitness in the Seattle area. “We use a database that lists all our group fitness instructors, along with their levels, types of certification and expiration dates.”

For those who prefer to keep paper files, Lauren Eirk has a fail-safe plan: “I have a file folder for each instructor, in which I record the [certification] expiration dates on the upper left-hand corner in red,” says Eirk, who serves as group fitness director of the two Louisville Athletic Clubs in Louisville, Kentucky.

SIDEBAR: Using Outlook for Tracking Purposes

“If one of my instructors [lets his or her certification lapse], he or she is taken off the group fitness schedule,” says Eirk. “Once the instructor gets recertified, that teacher must start subbing and wait for an opening in the department. In addition, that person loses his/her complimentary membership and must become a paying club member [to continue using the facility].”

For most instructors and trainers, it has been common practice to wait for a renewal notice and then provide proof of continuing education and payment. This method isn’t 100% effective, though, especially if you don’t receive the renewal notice in time or haven’t attended enough courses to gain the required CECs.

Perhaps the industry is ready for a reminder service or program that would inform certified trainers and teachers about continuing education opportunities in their area and indicate how much time was left for renewal on specific certifications. This way, there would be less of a surprise and scramble at the last minute. Of course, there is no solution or program that will prevent procrastination!

For the latest research, statistics, sample classes, and more, "Like" IDEA on Facebook here.

Alexandra Williams, MA

IDEA Author/Presenter
Alexandra Williams, MA, is a contributing editor for IDEA Fitness Journal and co-owner of the Fun & ... more less
July 2006

© 2006 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

Get the award-winning IDEA Fitness Journal delivered to your door every month!

Get IDEA Fitness Journal

Article Comments

Add Comment

Image CAPTCHA
Cancel
View all questions