CHICAGO -- If one state legislature requires licensing of personal trainers, other states will soon follow. That was the consensus of the four panelists on the personal trainer licensing roundtable last Wednesday at the Club Industry 2010 Conference and Exposition.

At least five states are considering legislation related to licensing personal trainers: Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Georgia and California.

The panel session, moderated by Club Industry Managing Editor Stuart Goldman, included Richard Cotton, national director of certification for the American College of Sports Medicine; David Herbert, principal member, David L. Herbert & Associates LLC; Sara Kooperman, owner, SCW Fitness Education; and Jay Del Vecchio, founder, World Instructor Training Schools.

If club operators want to continue to self-regulate, they must be proactive with state legislators, offering their input when their states begin to consider licensing, Del Vecchio said. He also suggested that the industry should have an annual meeting on the topic to determine how the industry can tackle this issue together. That meeting may lead to a group with its own board to help direct the issue.

Cotton said that club operators must take a hard look at their assumptions about licensing to see if those assumptions are true. Would licensing really cost owners more money because they’d have to pay licensed trainers more than they do now? Will licensing really cause owners to lose control over the education and quality of personal trainers? Would the quality of personal trainers really improve if they are licensed?

“I can’t imagine there wouldn’t be an increase in quality with licensing,” Cotton said.

Later, he added, “What true health care professional does not hold a minimum of a bachelor’s degree? Many, if not all, doctors are cautious about making referrals to unlicensed professionals.”

Herbert, a lawyer who works with club operators, said, “You won’t be part of health care reform unless you are regulated. Health care needs you guys.”

He added that licensing proposals have been around for quite some time, but these proposals have become more trendy recently, despite opposition from some groups. In particular, Herbert pointed out certification organizations, which have a stake in this issue because licensing may cause them to become just educational organizations that prepare trainers for licensing.

One educational and certification group is Kooperman’s SCW Fitness Education. She spoke against licensing, saying that although many states have considered licensing, all of them have abandoned the idea. Why? Because personal training is not a required service and licensing is to protect individuals from health care professionals offering a required service. Besides, she said, licensing takes a lot of money to implement and oversee, and right now, states do not have the money to set up those required oversight organizations.

She also said that licensing would raise the cost and decrease the number of professionals going into personal training.

“If we keep raising the bar, we’re going to keep driving people out of this profession,” Kooperman said.

With obesity rates higher than ever, that is not what the industry needs right now, she added. Instead, she pointed to the low point of entry for instructors to teach Zumba and how that has helped propel that group exercise option into a lot more clubs, reaching a lot more people.

However, Cotton responded by saying that personal trainers are different from group exercise instructors in that trainers work with individuals on a more personal basis, dealing with their health issues during the training sessions.