Twenty-five years ago, in the days of pink leg warmers and “Go for the burn” motivation, the fitness industry was professionally out of shape.

There were no ethical standards, few safety guidelines and minimal organization. A buff bod and perky personality were the only prerequisites for aerobics instructors, and a typical exercise class meant jumping on concrete floors, countless high kicks and chronic shinsplints.

“There were so many thousands of fitness instructors around the country, and they had no experience or background. They had nowhere to turn for information about the industry or safety. There was a huge void,” said Kathie Davis, who with her husband, Peter, made it their job to fill that void.

In 1982, in an effort to bring some form and function into fitness, the young couple, fresh out of San Diego State University, founded IDEA Health & Fitness Association (for the first six years the name was an acronym for International Dance and Exercise Association.)

“We believed the fitness industry needed some kind of association that could be responsible for fitness professionals, giving them unbiased information, guidance and some sort of standardization,” said Peter, the chief executive officer of the nonprofit group.

Coming from the strictly regulated world of tennis, the Davises understood the importance of organization and ethics in sports, as well as business. They met at tennis camp at age 13, both competed during college, and Peter went on to become the tennis coach at the University of California San Diego. They knew that associations, certifications, rules and education were an integral part of what makes any sport safe and successful.

“Instead of the feeling of competitiveness (among fitness instructors), we wanted people
to realize that if the industry is going to grow, we had to share information,” Peter said.

Because IDEA was all about information and education, a newsletter seemed the best way to get the job done. Packed with reliable data and useful resources, a 12-page newsletter was sent to the 300 IDEA members the first year.

The Davises put together an IDEA board of advisers that included university coaches, San Diego State University physical education professors, kinesiologists, podiatrists and physiologists, who wrote articles for the newsletter and helped disseminate accurate and reliable safety and fitness information. They also introduced the industry's first code of ethics and awards program to recognize professional excellence in the fitness field.

“For the first time, people in the fitness industry had someplace to go to get solid information and helpful resources,” says Kathie, who, with a degree in physical education, is the executive director of the organization.

IDEA apparently fulfilled a long-neglected need because membership jumped to 3,000 in just one year and to 14,000 by 1988. In 25 years, the grass-roots effort, which started in the Davises' spare bedroom with minimal funds and zero staff, has grown to more than 21,000 members in more than 80 countries.

That single newsletter has developed into several respected publications including “IDEA Fitness Journal,” “IDEA Trainer Success,” “IDEA Personal Trainer” and “IDEA Fitness Manager.” The organization also puts out IDEA Fit Tips & News eNewsletter, an electronic newsletter which is free to anyone, not just members (ideafit.org).

To further spread the word, IDEA held annual conventions for its members offering demonstrations, seminars, and training programs. The first gathering in 1984 was held at the downtown Holiday Inn to a capacity crowd – 600 attendees.

“We had never put on a convention before. And it was before computers. We had people lined up around the pool area for hours waiting to sign up, and some of them were really angry,” Kathie said.

“Yes, we made mistakes, but it was a learning experience. By now, we've gotten pretty good at putting on conventions.”

In fact, conventions proved to be such an effective way to communicate and learn about the ever-changing world of health and fitness that four different IDEA conventions are scheduled each year.

The largest one, the IDEA World Fitness Convention, is held each summer on the West Coast. Last July it was in San Diego and hosted more than 7,000 people from all over the world. Next summer it will be in Las Vegas. The other conventions include the Inner IDEA Conference for mind, body, spirit, the Personal Trainer Institute, which was in Orlando, Fla., last month, and Fitness Fusion, a combination group exercise and personal trainer fitness event in Chicago every spring.

The Davises also made good on their promise to introduce formal fitness instructor education and certification. In 1985 they established the IDEA Foundation, now known as the American Council on Exercise (ACE), to provide a professional training and certification program.

One of the benefits of professional fitness certification is that it “forces instructors and personal trainers to be knowledgeable,” Peter said. “If you want to stay certified, you must have continuing education credits. That means you have to continue to learn and keep up-to-date on fitness and health information.”

Using trained, certified instructors is a win-win situation for everyone, he added. Certified instructors not only offer the consumer a safer, more effective workout, but they also present health clubs withfewer liability problems.

IDEA is also credited for making personal training “a respected and viable industry,” Peter said. “There (used to be) a sense that they were only for the elite. The reality is that certified personal training is for anyone and will be here forever.”

IDEA's newest challenge is childhood obesity. Teaming up with the Alliance for a Healthier Generation (the partnership between the American Heart Association and the William J. Clinton Foundation), IDEA will try to increase physical activity opportunities for children across the country as members volunteer their time to provide expertise about fitness to the schools.

“This is something we're really passionate about. It's a way to give back to the community and reach people who are not exercising on a regular basis,” Peter said. “Working with the alliance on this fits perfectly into the mission of IDEA: Inspire the world to fitness.”