Legal & Risk Management
By Sean Riley, MS, JD

Why You Need Legal Education

You have a vital role to play in guaranteeing the quality of your profession.


Switch on your television set in the middle of the day and you are guaranteed to find three things: soap operas, talk shows and courtroom programs. The fairly recent proliferation of the last type of programming is just one indication that American society is more litigious than ever. No individual or industry is safe from the inconvenience and peril of litigation. The fitness industry is particularly vulnerable to this threat–partly because the work carries a significant risk of physical injury, but also because fitness industry regulations are not standardized. How can you protect yourself and your business in today’s litigious environment?

The Prevalence of Personal Training
First, to appreciate the legalities relevant to the fitness profession, you must understand the changing face of fitness and especially of personal training. The fitness boom of the 1970s has only recently come to fruition with an increase in access to fitness clubs and personal training. One factor that has led to an expansion in health and fitness services is the marketing of the fitness lifestyle (Maguire 2001). Society’s dual obsessions with health and physical appearance have turned fitness into a commercial production that includes the advertisement and sale of health-related products that appeal to consumers’ desire to “purchase” fitness and obtain the “ideal” body. Personal training is one type of service work that cultivates this link between the fitness industry and consumerism (Maguire 2001). Personal training is not a new phenomenon, but the variety of populations currently accessing it is new. The use of personal fitness trainers (PFTs) was traditionally limited to people whose occu-

pations were grounded in performance and appearance (e.g., professional athletes and celebrities). The increasing exposure of idealistic body shapes to everyday citizens–via cable and satellite television, magazines and the Internet–has led to a shift in the concept of the ideal body. Consumers are obsessed with attaining a body like the ones they see in the media. The following quote from a personal trainer summarizes this obsession: “Everybody is working out now. . . . [People see a body in] music videos . . . [and] want that body . . . so [working out is] normalized” (Maguire 2001). Personal training is no longer an elitist athletic training tool; it is a readily available consumer service. Another factor contributing to the explosion in the call for fitness services is the endorsement of exercise by the medical community (Maguire 2001). While many individuals are motivated by vanity in their pursuit of fitness, an equal number of people, both young and old, are motivated by health concerns. In fact, many clubs have a substantial clientele of older and/or postoperative populations. The point is that personal training is of interest to a broad audience.

The Problem: A Lack of Standardized Regulations
The range of education and practical experience among PFTs is as broad as the audience. Some trainers do not possess a degree in the field and have only minimal practical experience. Granted, attributes such as physique, attitude and charisma are important, but emphasizing appearance and charisma rather than certification and education is a disservice to the profession and makes the field ripe for litigation. Authority is not generated from charisma, but from education, training, experience and knowledge.

Industry Self-Regulation
Because of the demand for fitness instructors and the need for quality control, the fitness industry has introduced certification programs. While some certify-

ing bodies are highly regarded, the level of competency required by each agency varies, resulting in a lack of standardization. For many professions, a certain level of quality control is guaranteed through the use of a licensing system. Physicians, attorneys and physical therapists, for example, are all governed by a state licensing requirement. Most industries subject to licensing procedures are deemed professions, and the respective employees are called professionals. From a legal standpoint, professionals who are governed by licenses are presumed to meet certain standards of conduct in the course of their business. Should they fail to meet those standards, the potential for lawsuits is immense. For those in a licensed field, standardized procedures exist for governing misconduct and unethical behavior. For example, the first step in an allegation of negligence is a formal review of the grievance by an official committee. The fitness industry lacks such formal procedures for handling grievances. Consequently the potential exists for unethical and substandard conduct. In such an environment, professionalism is hard to guarantee and control. Since PFTs are not licensed, the industry is not regulated by the state. In fact, the extent of regulation varies per club and per individual. There are no set standards trainers must follow–no universal legal duties they must perform. These omissions make it problematic for managers and club operators to be confident they are hiring qualified, knowledgeable, professional people. Some industry organizations, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and IDEA, have attempted to set standards for facilities and individual fitness professionals. But are these ideals being maintained in the fitness industry today? In a recent study evaluating the compliance of various fitness facilities with the standards outlined in Peterson & Tharrett’s ACSM’s Health and Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines, researchers found that many fitness professionals are unaware of the various legal

Supplement to February 2005 I D E A F i t n e s s J o u r n a l

Share the IDEA Code of Ethics With Staff
As the fitness industry works to earn a credible foothold with the medical and insurance industries to advance the fight against obesity, we need to raise the standards of both the credentialing process and what is considered acceptable behavior for fitness professionals. IDEA formulated a formal code of ethics and specific practice guidelines for owners and managers, personal trainers and group fitness instructors almost a decade ago. The formal code for all members is below. You can find the specific practice guidelines at or in the February issue of IDEA Fitness Journal on pp. 64