From coast to coast, state legislatures are introducing bills that are once again putting the qualifications of personal trainers under a microscope. One of the most recent bills was introduced in January in Massachusetts, a bill that would require the licensing of personal trainers. Last fall, New Jersey introduced a similar personal trainer license bill. Maryland, Georgia and the District of Columbia also introduced similar legislation last year. The International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has been actively lobbying against all of these bills.

The proliferation of personal training licensing bills is nothing new to state legislatures or to the industry. In fact, these types of bills, especially as they relate to exercise physiologists, have been around for at least 20 years. Only one state — Louisiana — has passed a bill that licenses exercise physiologists, and that law has produced mixed results at best.

IHRSA lobbyists and other industry leaders say the personal training industry has already regulated itself by creating accreditation standards for certification agencies. A licensing program, opponents say, would be too costly for personal trainers, clubs, consumers, taxpayers and the states themselves.

Proponents of the licensing bills say states are trying to prevent injuries that may occur to clients who hire unqualified personal trainers. They also say some certifications are too easy to obtain and that the quality level of personal trainers are not discernible based on their certification. Furthermore, proponents say a more uniform method of accreditation across the board is the best way to produce better and more qualified personal trainers.

A personal trainer bill in California that does not require licensing attracted the attention of IHRSA leaders. At the IHRSA 2009 show this March, IHRSA lobbyists and members of IHRSA's board discussed the bill's language with California lawmakers. Both sides say they came away from the meeting satisfied with the intent of the bill and its potential impact on the industry.

The State of Personal Training Licensing

As of press time, the Massachusetts bill was in committee, according to the office of Sen. Richard Moore, who introduced the bill. The bills in New Jersey and the District of Columbia are pending, and the bills in Maryland and Georgia are inactive but are expected to be reintroduced this year, according to IHRSA.

The Massachusetts bill (Senate bill 870) requires license applicants to 1) be graduates of an accredited educational program leading to professional qualification in personal training, 2) hold a certification accredited by the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) and 3) pass an exam with oral and practical demonstrations of skill. The exam must be approved by an independent licensing board composed of an exercise science professor, a practicing personal trainer with credentials and a member of the public.

Art Curtis has a vested interest in this legislation as CEO of Millennium Partners Sports Club Management, Boston, which has six clubs under the Sports Club/LA name. Curtis also is an IHRSA board member, has a doctorate in physiology, holds certifications and is a fellow of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM).

Curtis is concerned that states are trying to introduce similar bills based on pieces of information gathered from bills in other states. Many states, Curtis says, are trying to “reinvent the wheel.”

“Part of the problem lies in the fact that there is not a really good piece of model legislation out there that all the states can just simply copy,” Curtis says. “We need a piece of model legislation so that states can just go to and say, ‘Here's a good one. Just do that.’”

Licensing personal trainers is not the best way for state governments to protect the public's interest, Curtis — and many IHRSA members — say. Instead, he says that state governments should follow the current certification model and alternatives through higher education programs.

Six years ago, IHRSA recommended that its member clubs hire personal trainers holding either a current certification accredited by the NCCA or a personal training certificate or degree from an institution recognized by the Council for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA) and/or the U.S. Department of Education (ED).

“The approach that [IHRSA is] taking with certification is a very sound one, a very logical one, and it doesn't create a lot of undue administrative burden or additional costs to the state and taxpayers to administer [laws] that probably aren't very necessary,” says Curtis, who has had meetings with the author of the Massachusetts bill.

Rob Shapiro, founder and co-owner of a chain with 13 personal training studios (11 of which are in Massachusetts) called One2One BodyScapes, Southborough, MA, sees a personal training license as an unnecessary step for personal trainers to qualify themselves after obtaining a college degree or a certification. Shapiro says that for him, a license doesn't give a personal trainer more credibility than one who does not have a license. Shapiro prefers to hire trainers with a four-year degree and urges other business owners to make sure they hire the right people for their operations.

The redundancy of an extra examination and the expense of a licensing program are two concerns for the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The language in many of the current licensing bills would not assist states in meeting their stated goals of protecting consumers, says Scott Goudeseune, ACE president and CEO.

The Massachusetts bill may be too ambitious, Goudeseune says, because few academic or vocational programs have been accredited for personal training, as the bill requires.

Like Shapiro and Curtis, William Elliott is in favor of personal trainers who have a formal education. Elliott is the owner and operator of HealthBuilding, an independent fitness and wellness-based practice. Elliott, a personal trainer, has a doctorate in applied physiology and has taught physiology-related classes at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs. Elliott also is a professor for the International Sports Sciences Association and trains personal trainers.

“It's always been kind of disheartening for me when I told people about my degrees, and their response was, ‘Well, are you certified?’” Elliott says of his past conversations with club owners and clients. “The formal education that I have is probably a much stronger foundation.”

From a consumer standpoint, government regulation in the form of licensing personal trainers could be more of a hindrance than helpful, says Chuck Leve, president and CEO of the Consumer Fitness Association and former vice president of business development at IHRSA.

“Of course, if government regulation becomes imminent or even likely, then it's imperative that our industry be at the table to help set realistic and reasonable guidelines,” Leve says. “That should be done through the already-accredited organizations as well as the organizations representing potential employers.”

Next Page: Follow the Money

Previous Page: The State of Personal Training Licensing

Follow the Money

One of the roadblocks to a licensing program in any state is the cost to set up the program and the costs incurred when personal trainers have to take a licensing exam. There are also questions about who would pay for the exam and the testing — the personal trainers themselves or the clubs that employ them.

States could generate revenue through licensing programs.

“There are groups out there who see money in this,” Elliott says. “When licensure is required for any group, there are a lot of fees that go into becoming licensed and maintaining a license. Like anywhere in the rest of the world with products and services where there is money to be generated, sometimes that is a stimulus to developing an infrastructure.”

States might not be the only ones making money off of licensing, however. Some proponents of licensing say it could help personal trainers get third-party reimbursement for their services, which could drive more people to seek personal training services.

In reality, however, personal trainers already can make money with clinical exercise through negotiated contracts with health plans and employer insurance groups, says Eric Durak, president of Medical Health and Fitness, a health promotion company specializing in cancer wellness products and services, as well as therapeutic exercise continuing education.

“It's all about the money,” Durak says. “If health and fitness professionals [at any level] are interested in third-party payments for services, then these professionals should be negotiating with health plans and insurance companies for these contracts.”

Reasons for Licensure

JoAnn Eickhoff-Shemek, an exercise science professor at the University of South Florida, and David Herbert, an Ohio attorney who has written extensively on negligence and risk management in the club industry, co-wrote a three-part series titled “Is Licensure in Your Future?” that was published in ACSM's Health and Fitness Journal in 2007. Neither author took a definitive side in the series on whether personal trainers should be licensed. Their intent, Eickhoff-Shemek says, was to educate professionals in order for them to form their own opinions.

Eickhoff-Shemek, who has managed health and fitness programs for almost 20 years, says that in her opinion, a licensing program for the entire industry makes the most sense. Although Herbert remains neutral on the issue of licensing, he and Eickhoff-Shemek both agree that should any state licensure law be adopted, it should be uniform from state to state and be based on a national examination, such as one offered by the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE). That organization has been the subject of some controversy because some certification agencies claim the NBFE is just another certification agency.

“The consistency issue to me is a big issue from state to state,” Eickhoff-Shemek says. “I would hate to see 50 different licensing statutes that vary tremendously from state to state. Nowadays, people move around a lot. The whole concept of a national board and a national board exam that many other professions have to deal with makes a lot of sense. I would like to see all of the major organizations get together, buy into this, be involved and be proactive and work together.”

The training and education needed for certain personal training certifications is not sufficient to be a quality personal trainer, Eickhoff-Shemek says.

“To pass a [certification] exam, a lot of times, people buy the study materials or maybe go to a one-day workshop, then they take the exam and they pass, and now they're a certified personal trainer, and that certification is accredited,” she says. “And now they are qualified by a lot of employers to become a personal trainer.

“To me, it's much more than that. You can't tell me that somebody who takes a written exam on the computer and passes the exam is automatically competent. There's a big difference between people with credentials and qualifications and whether or not they are also competent. That is where the training, the education, the evaluation, the observations of a person who wants to become a personal trainer over several weeks or several months is absolutely necessary. The person that would be evaluating these potential personal trainers would need to have the necessary experience and background as well.”

The California Compromise

A bill that was recently passed in the California Senate may have the unifying qualities to satisfy all parties.

Senate bill 374, which was introduced by Sen. Ron Calderon in February, has never had licensing as a requirement for personal training. Similar to IHRSA's self-regulation policies, personal trainers in the California bill must receive a certification from an agency approved by the NCCA or by an organization accredited by CHEA or the DOE. The other option for personal trainers is to have a bachelor's degree in exercise science, kinesiology, fitness science or another related field.

Curtis and other IHRSA representatives met with Calderon and his staff in March at the IHRSA show.

“They did everything you could possibly ask,” Curtis says. “They were certainly willing to meet with us and discuss it. It was great that they adopted all the things that we had talked about.”

The bill was amended April 2 and passed later in the month. As of press time, the bill was in the California Assembly.

California legislators plan to meet with club leaders in the state to determine penalties for club owners who do not comply with the law and to determine the governing body overseeing compliance.

Elise Flynn Gyore, a legislative consultant for Sen. Calderon who was at the IHRSA meeting and was involved in writing the bill, says the state wants to give personal trainers the option of having the specific certification and accreditation or the four-year degree because it does not want to hinder someone from pursuing this career, especially in the current economy.

“We do feel that personal trainers do a valuable service,” Flynn Gyore says. “With obesity on the rise, we don't want to block people from being able to get a personal trainer or to be able to get into the industry to be a personal trainer.”

Licensing in California was never discussed in the bill, Flynn Gyore says, because of the backlash received against bills such as those in Massachusetts and New Jersey and because of the lack of state funds needed to set up a personal training licensing program.

“If we have reputable accrediting or certifying bodies out there, why reinvent the wheel?” Flynn Gyore says. “I think [IHRSA] liked the fact that we reached out to them first. It's also the fact that they know this is the direction the industry is going. California is such a huge 800-pound gorilla in this industry. They're thinking if California passes something that's common sense, not a huge burden to the industry, something we can work with, that will set the precedence in other states. Stay tuned.”

Next Page: Licensing in Louisiana

Previous Page: Follow the Money

Licensing in Louisiana

To date, Louisiana is the only state that licenses exercise science professionals. Louisiana began licensing clinical exercise physiologists (CEPs) in the mid-1990s after its state legislature passed a licensing bill.

At the time, the hope was that CEPs in Louisiana would be on par with occupational therapists and physical therapists, says Rob Streeck, a former licensed CEP in the state. Streeck, who worked at a local hospital, says his motivation to get a license was to get reimbursement through insurance companies, paving the way for him to see clients on his own and without the supervision of a physical or occupational therapist.

Some of Streeck's CEP colleagues thought that doctors would begin referring to them once they had a license. That didn't happen, Streeck says, and the growth of exercise physiologists in the state began to wane.

“At the time, I was on the bandwagon. I was a real cheerleader for it,” Streeck says. “It just never developed the way that we had thought that it would.”

The problem, Streeck says, is that CEPs came from too many diverse backgrounds. At the time, CEPs were not required to have a four-year degree, Streeck says.

Today, some of the requirements to obtain a license from the Louisiana State Board of Medical Examiners include a master's of science or a master's of education degree, American College of Sports Medicine score reports and the completion of a 300-hour internship in exercise physiology under the supervision of a licensed exercise physiologist. The fee to obtain a CEP license in Louisiana is $150, and CEP licenses are renewable annually at a fee of $100.

Streeck chose not to renew his license once he became an athletic director at a fitness club. As he scans the job scene these days, he has noticed that licensed CEPs are not in demand.

“I have not seen one ad for a licensed exercise physiologist,” Streeck says. “That definitely tells you something.”