Licensing Debate: Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors

by Ryan Halvorson on Nov 19, 2008

The November-December 2008 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal (2008; 5 [10], 16) reported on proposed legislation that would require personal trainers in Washington, DC, to register with the mayor and submit fees biennially. Registered personal trainers would be regulated by the Board of Physical Therapy and would operate within a scope of practice delineated by the board. Now, other states are following suit.

On October 6, 2008, Senate Bill 2164—the “Fitness Professional Licensing Act”—was proposed in New Jersey. This legislation would require that a governor-appointed board oversee the licensing and regulation of personal trainers and group fitness instructors.

Should the bill become law, professionals seeking licensure would have to complete “an approved course of study of not less than 300 in-person classroom hours, as prescribed by the board after consultation with the Department of Education and the Department of Labor and Workforce Development.” Those hours would include at least 50 hours of unpaid internship “in the presence of and under direct supervision of a licensed fitness professional,” to be provided by the school offering the approved course of study. Upon program completion, professionals would need to pass a final examination.

Trainers and instructors possessing either an associate or bachelor’s degree in physical education, exercise science, exercise physiology or adult fitness would be exempt from the classroom study, internship hours and final exam. Professionals obtaining certification prior to enactment of S 2164 would have to hold a certificate from the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) or other board-approved organization. They would be required to offer proof of enrollment in or successful completion of at least 150 in-person classroom hours.

Across the board, fitness professionals agree that personal training and group fitness instruction should be regulated for optimal safety. However, some find the proposed legislation inappropriate. “With the increase in obesity among the young, frailty among the elderly and [an] overall decline in fitness, it is outrageous that the New Jersey state senate is trying to balance the bloated state budget on the backs of personal trainers and their clients,” says Joe Stein, president of Renaissance Fitness & Wellness Inc., in Little Silver, New Jersey. “Lowered standards, onerous additional requirements that most certified [trainers] have already met, and increased licensing fees are not the way to help the people of New Jersey.”

New Jersey-based personal trainer and life coach John Allen Mollenhauer disagrees. “I think the respect, quality of service and impact of the personal training industry will be far higher and the opportunity greater for the committed group of professionals when the barriers to entry are higher, like any other profession,” he says.

“IDEA Health & Fitness Association opposes S 2164 for a number of reasons,” say Kathie and Peter Davis, IDEA executive director and chief executive officer (CEO), respectively. “The bill’s education requirements are not in line with current industry practice and require so much time and cost that they would definitely discourage both group exercise instructors and personal trainers from entering the field. Also, the bill is not taking into account the third-party standards set by NCCA and the 10 personal training certification bodies who have become accredited by NCCA. The industry is taking responsible measures to self-regulate, and this bill completely overlooks this very important fact.”

Sal Arria, MSS, DC, president of the NBFE, remains neutral on the subject but believes that, if states adopt licensing requirements, a nationwide license should be offered. “It is in the best interest of the fitness profession to utilize one National Board Examination as a terminal licensure exam in lieu of ending up with 50 different state board licensing exams,” he suggests. “This model has been very successful in some medical and allied health fields, but unfortunately there are still many that require 50 different state board exams in addition to 50 different education and continuing education requirements. Obviously this places unnecessary hardship on professionals who move [from one state to another].”

Cedric X. Bryant, PhD, chief science officer for the American Council on Exercise, also agrees that uniform regulation of fitness professionals should be administered, but finds the proposed requirements for licensure cumbersome. Bryant believes that, as proposed, the bill would “inhibit efforts to both provide protections for the consumer and facilitate growth of the fitness industry in New Jersey.” He suggests using the standard established for other allied healthcare professions through the Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP). Institutions offering vocational 2-year programs, 4-year degrees or advanced degrees can receive CAAHEP accreditation.

Bryant also requests that the current standard, as regulated by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), should be upheld instead of switching to NBFE. “Existing codes of ethics, standards of care and a clearly defined scope of practice for the personal training profession are recognized and accepted by the leading fitness certifications organizations accredited through the NCCA,” he adds.

The International Health, Racquet & Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) mobilized its members and spoke out against S 2164 in October 2008 on the grounds that the bill ignored the great majority of the personal training industry that has embraced accreditation; nominated a single certifying body over an entire market of accredited certifying bodies; established requirements that would increase costs for trainers and consumers; established arbitrary education requirements; and required unworkable and expensive oversight.

According to Joe Moore, the president and CEO of Boston-based IHRSA, “the industry should regulate itself rather than have outside forces who know little of our industry do it.

“As an advocacy organization, it is important to us that trainers be qualified,” said Moore. “We want to support policies that help our member businesses grow, and alert our members when the government tries to do things that might hurt their businesses. We have a public policy division that tracks proposals and mobilizes our members to act.”

If passed, S 2164 could set a nationwide precedent. In addition to Washington, DC, and New Jersey, Maryland and Georgia are also considering fitness professional licensure, according to the NBFE website (www.nbfe.org/news/press_releases/stateLicensing_082008.cfm; retrieved November 12, 2008). To read the New Jersey bill in its entirety, visit http://www.njleg.state.nj.us/2008/Bills/S2500/2164_I1.HTM.

IDEA Fit Tips , Volume 6, Issue 4

© 2008 by IDEA Health & Fitness Inc. All rights reserved. Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

About the Author

Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson IDEA Author/Presenter

Ryan Halvorson is the publications assistant for IDEA Health & Fitness Association. He is a speaker and regular contributor to health and fitness publications and a certified personal trainer.

31 Comments

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  • Tom Smith

    It's important there's a minimum standard for what a personal trainer should be, but requiring yearly fees (and possibly a license?) is a bit far. There should be a much better way to handle this.
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  • kelli martin

    Trainsmart, And many WITHOUT exercise related degrees are passing these tests, EVEN the major ones. As of last year, I no longer carry a certification. I don't have to - everyone I train knows that I have the education and experience. Same for those who ask me to speak or present exercise related programs. I refuse to support an industry that perpetuates such a lax standard.
    Commented Feb 28, 2012
  • Train Smart

    Personal training should be licensed so that these so called certifications disappear. Certifications are just a way to scam money. I hate that I have to spend $300 to take a personal training certification test that insults my intelligence. Those who aren't confident with their knowledge get sucked in to buy pricey "textbooks" and "practice exams" only to find out that the information is extremely basic and common sense. So why are these ridiculous certifications out there? It's all about money. These big certifying organizations oppose the bill because they'll lose A LOT of money. Think about how much they make from exams, recertifications, textbook, practice exams and continuing education classes. Anyone with a BS in kinesiology can pass these stupid certification exams. Also, it's fine to have the Board of Physical Therapy determine our scope of practice. They use evidence based exercises with patients and require detailed notes to track progress. If all fitness professionals used evidence based training methods and documented progress in a more detailed manner, the world of personal training would be a lot more safe and effective overall. I'm certified under one big organization, but refuse to get another certification with hopes that a license will eventually become a requirement.
    Commented Nov 30, 2011
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  • Noelle Brownson

    There used to be a similar situation decades ago in the Athletic Training profession. There were many people working in the scope of professional AT's, but with little or no formal schooling, since none was offered. Becoming a certified Athletic Trainer (ATC) now requires formal schooling in an accredited program, passing one national exam, and annual continuing education. These provisions have made it into a true profession. There were growing pains in the process and I'm certain that not everyone loved it, but it worked. I feel it is long past due for personal trainers to be required to complete a formal education. Our work is no less demanding of a thorough knowledge base than the work of ATCs. And the consequences of not having a thorough education and a systematic approach to training clients could be just as disastrous as that of someone performing the tasks of an ATC who is not qualified to do the work. So I for one, feel that licensure would elevate the profession tremendously. Without it, we are requiring a public who isn't educated in health and fitness to know how to find a qualified trainer: to know what certifications to ask for, to know what college degrees to ask for, to know what continuing education to ask about. It's just not fair. Could you imagine having to know all these things when trying to choose a doctor, dentist, or even hair stylist? It's unfair to expect consumers to be able to sift through it all.
    Commented Feb 17, 2011
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