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Licensing Debate: Personal Trainers, Group Fitness Instructors

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.

If you have a strong opinion about this bill, we urge you to contact your state representative or the legislation’s primary sponsor, New Jersey Senator Paul A. Sarlo, at (201) 804-8118. You may also complete an online form at the following Web page: www.njleg.state.nj.us/SelectRep.asp.

IDEA is also interested in hearing your thoughts. Please leave your comments below.


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Ryan Halvorson

Ryan Halvorson is an award-winning writer and editor. He is a long-time author and presenter for IDEA Health & Fitness Association, fitness industry consultant and former director of group training for Bird Rock Fit. He is also a Master Trainer for TriggerPoint.

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