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Is There a Public Health Role for Fitness Professionals?

Imagine the following scenarios:

  • Friends of an overweight, inactive 35-year-old encourage him to join a team physical activity and weight loss challenge sponsored by their employer. He loses 12 pounds and joins a fitness club, with costs subsidized by his employer.
  • A husband and wife, senior retirees, attend a community-sponsored fair and learn about an exercise program at a nearby church. Two weeks later they sign up for the fitness class, which is led by a certified group fitness instructor.
  • A preschooler discovers the joy of physical fitness at her childcare center. The center recently upgraded its physical fitness activity curriculum using a guide developed by a statewide consortium. When she goes to elementary school next year, she and her classmates could become future fitness buffs because the school has revamped its physical education (PE) curriculum to emphasize lifelong health and fitness.

These are just three ways that public health initiatives are responding to America’s rising tide of obesity, diabetes and other chronic conditions. Fitness industry leaders have long supported public health efforts, but something new is happening on gym floors across the country: personal trainers, group instructors and other fitness professionals are becoming ever more involved in public health programs.

Health and Fitness Success Stories

Unlike clinical health systems that treat individuals, public health programs aim to prevent health problems and to improve the health and wellness of local communities, states and the nation (ASPH 2011). In the United States, public health policy flows from the federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, filters down to state and local health departments and finds its way into schools, workplaces and homes.

While public health officials are addressing the urgent need to make America healthier, fitness professionals are exploring exciting opportunities in public health. A sampling:

New York City

When Carolann Valentino walks into a city fitness facility, her appreciative students greet her with loud cheers and clapping. Valentino, a group instructor for Equinox fitness clubs, leads classes for Shape Up NYC, a public health initiative run by the city of New York in partnership with Equinox and other sponsors. The fitness program offers free fitness classes at dozens of city parks and recreation facilities throughout New York’s five boroughs.

A wide array of fitness classes are available, including cardio workouts, African dance, kickboxing, chair aerobics and yoga. The exercise program keeps Valentino moving: she teaches six Zumba® and two IntenSati workout classes weekly. People travel across town to attend, some coming hours ahead of scheduled start times. “The classes have grown so much that the city had to cap some of them off,” says Valentino, who has a fine arts degree in musical theater and works professionally as a comic, singer, dancer and actress.

The multitalented, charismatic Valentino incorporates positive psychology and standup comedy into her fitness classes so that participants gain not only physical strength but emotional stamina—and enjoy a laugh or two as well. Appreciation for the exercise program is mutual. Valentino says the dedication and commitment of her students, and the results she sees, are inspiring. “Participating in the Shape Up NYC program has changed my life,” she says.


Teresa E. Brown, a professional fitness trainer and owner of Absolute Body Conditioning in Cleveland, gets excited when talking about people she works with in a new public health program at the Cleveland Clinic. “It’s so rewarding to be instrumental in changing the lives of individuals who had all but given up on healthy living,” says Brown. The program is a partnership between the clinic and the Canyon Ranch Institute (CRI), headquartered in Tucson, Arizona. Brown is a facilitator with the CRI Life Enhancement Program (LEP) and works for the Cleveland Clinic as a fitness consultant. LEP was developed by CRI and then expanded to underserved populations after evaluations demonstrated the program’s effectiveness in making people healthier (CRI 2011).

In each session, the Cleveland program enrolls up to 20 people over the age of 18 from Cleveland’s medically underserved neighborhoods. The 8- to 12-week program focuses on integrative medicine, nutrition, physical fitness, stress management and spirituality, defined as nurturing a sense of purpose. “You’re not going to be as interested in living a healthy lifestyle if you don’t have a sense of purpose in your life,” says Brown.

Working with a team of physicians, nurses, dietitians and social workers, Brown provides weekly fitness presentations and exercise classes, offers one-on-one counseling and performs before-and-after assessments. “Giving participants the tools necessary to empower them with a healthy mind, body and spirit is priceless, and I am truly blessed to be a part of this team,” says Brown.

Nashville, Tennessee

April Wood knows what it’s like to be an overweight mom who would never go to a fitness club. She was one 8 years ago. Through a powerful faith and gritty determination, she shed 110 pounds. Then, energized by her success, she went on to become a multicertified fitness professional and more recently created an innovative public health program based in Nashville.
Partnering with her local YMCA, Wood runs Hope for Health, an outreach program that offers fitness instruction and lifestyle coaching in locations where her clients—moms like her—feel comfortable: churches and community centers. Up to 25 clients per session enroll in a 12-week program where they learn to exercise and develop better nutrition habits. Clients take what they learn home so their children can also learn the benefit of exercise and eat more healthfully.

After the 12-week course, clients receive follow-up support to keep them on the right track. Operating from four locations, with each employing a fitness instructor and lifestyle coach, Hope for Health touched the lives of 400 women in its first year. Meanwhile, as an inspiring role model, Wood continues to spread the message of health and fitness through local media and as a public speaker.

Des Moines, Iowa

Since graduating with a degree in health promotion 6 years ago, Maggie Rooney has interned in a corporate wellness center, owned and managed a yoga studio and developed a successful fitness business that doesn’t wait for clients to come to her. Armed with her diverse experience, Rooney has knocked on doors at churches, nursing homes, worksites and childcare centers.

“The most effective methods to promote fitness are ‘grass-roots’ efforts,” says Rooney, who participates actively in Healthy Polk 2020, a public health initiative in metropolitan Des Moines. Her efforts are paying off for her business and her community. At EMC Insurance, a major property and casualty company in Iowa, Rooney offers fitness classes to company employees. Scheduled in the mornings and over the lunch hour, the 45-minute fitness sessions incorporate stretching, power yoga and relaxation. Rooney also has an interest in promoting fitness to kids. At a local childcare center, Rooney plays games, sings and teaches a yoga breathing technique (what her children call “the bunny breath”) to preschoolers as young as 2 years of age.

Her teaching is creative. The tots learn flexibility and proper stretching by picking up litter. All summer, Rooney and other local fitness professionals offer a free yoga class every Saturday in a popular public park. The yoga class attracted 400 people on one morning in the past year. “I’m very passionate about this,” says Rooney, who believes fitness is multifaceted. “My job allows me to get out and about and help people make a long-term commitment. You have to make a choice every day to be healthy.”


Since 1994, when he persuaded a local athletic club to donate space and fitness equipment, Willie Austin has been promoting better nutrition and fitness to Seattle’s youth population. Austin, a strength coach, personal trainer and former University of Washington football player, saw a growing need to create accessible fitness programs for young people.

To meet the need, he created the nonprofit Austin Foundation, which is helping to address the obesity and chronic-disease crisis by bringing life-changing health-and-fitness experiences to thousands of Seattle-area youth. Youth & Fitness, the foundation’s premier program, is a 6-week community-based course that teaches basic nutrition and fitness principles. Youth get to sample and learn activities and exercises that include cardio, strength and flexibility components.

In recent years, the foundation has expanded its offerings to include afterschool fitness programs, late-night programs for teens and in-school PE classes that let students earn credits toward graduation (Austin Foundation 2011). “I’ve seen kids’ lives transformed,” says Austin. “They not only get better conditioned physically, but also get better grades in school and stay out of trouble.” Austin actively participates in the King County Physical Activity Coalition and other local public health partnerships.

San Fernando, California

Professor Steven Loy, PhD, wanted to improve public health in a sustainable way and provide practical experience for his students. Loy, an exercise physiologist who teaches at California State University, Northridge, convinced the city of San Fernando to put eye-catching fitness equipment in city parks to spark citizen interest in physical activity.

Fliers posted on the fitness equipment invited residents to attend a free session to learn about the equipment and to participate in a project focused on health and exercise. Children, parents and grandparents showed up—and then passed the word. A new program—called 100 Citizens, San Fernando—was born.

Corina Martinez, a graduate student of Loy’s who helped design the initial program, and 20 student volunteers armed with extra exercise mats, resistance bands, medicine balls and other university equipment taught hundreds of citizens in San Fernando how to exercise. Loy says the program—a partnership of the university, the city of San Fernando and the Network for a Healthy California—demonstrates a low-cost/no-cost model that is sustainable and replicable. Meanwhile, his students, future fitness professionals, are learning how to apply their classroom studies in the real world to make an entire community healthier.

“The program has been a rewarding experience,” says Martinez. “Participants saw results they were not expecting.” Some lost weight; others were able to play with their kids or found out they no longer had diabetes.

Fitness Professionals ‘Broader Role’

Certifying agencies and researchers are seeing fitness professionals become key players in public health efforts. “Fitness professionals now have a broader role to play in getting people moving and improving their health and wellness,” says Todd Galati, director of credentials for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). An industry long focused on the fitness professionals and enthusiast is recognizing the bigger picture.

“Fitness is part of the healthcare continuum,” Galati says. “It offers preventive healthcare for people in postrehab and also for people who are not fitness enthusiasts.” ACE has expanded and adapted its training curricula and certification standards in recent years to align with this new reality.

“Fitness professionals have a tremendous opportunity to contribute to the health of the public,” says Jimmy Newkirk, executive director of the National Society of Physical Activity Practitioners in Public Health (NSPAPPH). The society was founded to promote a growing field of practitioners who work in state, county and local public health agencies. “Fitness professionals add perspective,” he adds. “They have expertise and resources that public health officials don’t have.” Fitness professionals interested in public health are eligible to join the society and may qualify for certification as physical activity public health specialists.

One expert has seen these changes up close. Since the late 1990s, Steven Hooker, PhD, has been speaking at conferences and in his classes about the expanding opportunities for fitness professionals in public health. Hooker, a professor in the exercise and wellness program at Arizona State University, worked in fitness clubs before earning his doctorate in exercise physiology, and then took a break from his academic career to direct physical activity and health initiatives for the California Department of Public Health.

Hooker says physical activity in public health is still “in its infancy,” and opportunities are likely to grow. He sees a lot of benefits for fitness professionals who get involved, including opportunities to build relationships with other professionals, to secure new funding and contracts, to create programs and to expand businesses to serve new populations.

Join the Health and Fitness Revolution

To learn more about public health initiatives, contact local, regional or state health agencies. Many have a physical activity coordinator who knows about partnerships, programs and opportunities to get involved. Local YMCAs and other nonprofit agencies such as the American Heart Association are often active in local efforts and welcome inquiries. Fitness professionals can also contact the NSPAPPH (www.nspapph.org), which supports fitness professional participation in public health and can connect interested professionals to local programs. Contact the society toll-free at (855) 677-2774.

Peter N. Francis, PhD, is a social psychologist and certified personal trainer practicing in Tucson, Arizona. He works with faith communities, nonprofit agencies and healthcare organizations to promote physical activity and healthier lifestyles for adults. Before becoming a fitness professional, he worked as a government program manager and consultant. Contact him at [email protected]

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