Thank you for the February 2001 Problem Solver column, “Dealing With Fellow Instructors’ Eating or Exercise Disorders.” Recently a colleague of mine encountered this situation with a member of her facility. With regard to getting involved, our staff is concerned about the legal implications, including possible claims of discrimination and privacy violation. What are the legal guidelines for approaching a member (especially at the request of other members) when it is clear that the member’s health is in danger?

Catharine Roseberry, JD, Allentown, Pennsylvania

If an instructor is concerned about the health of a member or class participant, the first step is to inform facility management. An organized facility should have some protocol in place to handle
a situation like this. The instructor may not need to be directly involved with the member. However, the facility has an obligation to provide a safe environment for its members.

Most facilities require prospective members to fill out a health questionnaire before joining. Many clubs require them to obtain a physician’s clearance to exercise (although this is often required only of people over a certain age or with specific health problems). Facilities therefore do have the legal obligation to require a member to get a doctor’s clearance to exercise if management has observed problematic behavior. Just as I, as an instructor, have the right to tell someone not to come barefoot into my step class for safety’s sake, a facility’s managers have the same right to ensure member safety.

If a member refuses to comply with a request for medical clearance, then management should strongly consider revoking that person’s membership and refunding any fees paid. Most membership contracts contain a provision that allows cancellation under appropriate circumstances.

I know there are concerns about privacy, but the fact is, if we require medical clearance to exercise, we aren’t asking for medical records, and the member’s confidential medical information remains between the member and the physician.

As professionals who obtain certifications to establish our expertise in fitness, we cannot ignore a problem that puts a member at risk. To do so perpetuates the problem. If an exerciser is using a treadmill improperly or a weight machine unsafely, and we (instructors and staff) see this, we have the authority and responsibility to correct the behavior. By allowing a member to continue engaging in any dangerous behavior under our supervision, not only do we send the
wrong message to our other members; we also put ourselves at risk of liability. In other words, doing nothing is legally risky.

Ultimately, diagnosing an eating disorder or exercise addiction is not our role, as most fitness leaders are not medical or mental health professionals. However, the task of addressing behavioral issues and general health concerns needs to rest with management.

How do I handle a teaching staff that refuses to recognize my authority as the acting group fitness director? My director asked me to take over her position while she was out of town for a while. I felt like the substitute teacher in grade school—everyone acted up during the director’s absence. Next time I am temporary backup, what should I do about instructor rudeness and disrespect?

Kelly McAndrews, El Segundo, California

The regular group fitness director has the responsibility to lay the groundwork. A director stepping out temporarily should let the staff know who will be assuming his or her position and should explain that all responsibilities of that position will be handled by the acting director. Before leaving, the director needs to clarify what is expected of the staff. The director also needs to let the staff know the exact dates during which any concerns and issues go to the acting director.

If the regular director does not follow the above suggestion, then the acting director should take it on him- or herself to let each staff member know of the temporary change in responsibilities. By notifying the staff—either individually or in a meeting—the acting director can establish credibility and make the lines of authority clear.

The important point is to be confident and assertive in your role as acting director. Balance this confidence with humility by reminding the staff that the situation is temporary. You don’t want to look as though you are attempting a coup. Assure the instructors that your role is to make sure everything runs smoothly in the director’s absence.

If problems with undermining authority still arise, maybe it’s time to reevaluate the staff’s professionalism. Save this job for the regular director, but make the problem known.

In the meantime, give verbal warnings to instructors who use inappropriate behavior or violate procedures. Hand out current written policies as needed, so offending instructors know what’s expected of them. If problems persist, make written notes and let the regular director deal with the personnel issues on his or her return.