BOSTON, MA — Three groups have initiated efforts to help personal trainers increase their credibility and professional standing. If followed through, these efforts could create changes in the education and certification of personal trainers.

While the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA) has been working with certifying agencies to develop standards for certifying groups, the International Association of Fitness Certifying Agencies (IAFCA) has introduced a seal of excellence for personal trainers that it hopes will become standard in the industry. The founder of another group is working with a board to develop a national exam for personal trainers and is lobbying for state licensing.

IHRSA's efforts during the past year to develop standards for certifying agencies drew criticism from some certifying organizations that were not initially included in the process. Now, IHRSA has widened its group to include twice as many certifying agencies — all of whom will meet this month prior to the start of the IHRSA show in Las Vegas to determine the group's next steps.

“The process is inclusive,” said Bill Howland, director of public relations and research at IHRSA. “It is our understanding that there are 200 certifying agencies. We didn't have the ability to send out invitations to all 200 certifying agencies. We are not excluding anyone who is interested in enhancing consumer safety. We want to acknowledge and thank groups that have stepped up on their own and expressed concerns about consumer safety, but our initiative is not an endorsement or censure of any group.”

In December, IHRSA recommended that as of Dec. 31, 2004, IHRSA member health clubs hire personal trainers who hold at least one current certification from a certifying organization that has obtained third-party accreditation of its certification procedures and protocols from an independent, experienced and nationally recognized accrediting body. IHRSA identified the National Commission for Certifying Agencies, the accreditation body of the National Organization for Competency Assurance, as an acceptable accrediting organization. It also stated it may recognize other accrediting organizations in the future. Two other accreditation groups exist in the United States.

Certifying agencies are scrambling to get accreditation because of IHRSA's recommendation, said Ron J. Clark, president of the National Federation of Personal Trainers, a certifying agency that has sent a letter of intent to NCCA to seek accreditation. However, he said, the long accreditation process and certain NCCA financial requirements may make it difficult for some newer and smaller certifying agencies to become accredited.

Clark is working on his own initiative, which he hopes will keep government regulations out of the health club industry. Last year, Clark set up the International Association of Fitness Certifying Agencies (IAFCA) and the Ethics and Safety Compliance Standard (ESCS). The ESCS is the “policing arm” of the nonprofit IAFCA. The ESCS will issue a “seal of excellence” to certified personal trainers who pay $35, download documents from the ESCS Web site and sign off on an agreement to comply with the standards set out by the group. Prospective clients can log onto the group's Web site to see if a particular personal trainer has the seal of excellence.

Clients can report trainer misconduct to the group. Upon receipt of a complaint, an ESCS Suspension Committee is randomly appointed from the ESCS Compliant Trainer Database. These peer trainers, possessing a variety of certification credentials and a seal of excellence, decide whether to suspend the seal of excellence from that trainer. The finding is forwarded to the appropriate certifying agency for its consideration.

Dr. Sal Arria, co-founder and executive director of the International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), has taken the personal trainer issue in a different direction by organizing a group called the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), which will test personal trainers, lobby for state licensure of personal trainers and reimbursement by insurance companies, and promote to the public and medicine the use of personal trainers for health and prevention reasons.

Most medical and health care providers must pass national competency exams to be recognized as professionals. A national exam for personal trainers would offer that professional recognition to the personal trainer and would help the medical community accept personal trainers as a truly regulated profession, said Arria, executive director of the nonprofit NBFE. The group hopes that with this recognition, doctors will begin writing prescriptions for exercise, which will have a huge impact on preventing most diseases while also benefiting insurance companies, doctors, personal trainers and health clubs.

“Since 1915, the medical profession has used the National Board of Medical Examiners to test the competency of physicians no matter what medical school they attended,” said Arria. “The fitness profession has experienced tremendous growth over the past 10 years. Numerous organizations offering personal trainers education have popped up, some very good and some not so good.”

By the first quarter of 2005, the NBFE will have in place a nationally approved, unbiased examination for three levels of personal trainers — one for floor instructors who don't necessarily need a four-year degree, one for four-year degreed personal trainers, and one for four-year degreed medical exercise specialists. After these exams are put in place, NBFE plans to develop exams for other personal training specialties, such as youth fitness and senior fitness.

The NBFE is working with individual states to accept the NBFE competency exam results and issue state licenses rather than each state eventually setting its own regulations.

“It is our position that we can self regulate this industry,” Arria said. “We do not need an outside organization or a regulatory commission telling us what to do.”

However, Clark at the ESCS doesn't support state licensing whether the initiative is instigated by the industry or not. He prefers that the government stay out of the industry all together. If the NBFE's efforts go forward, however, Clark plans to urge state legislators to also require his group's seal of excellence. By doing so, the state legislatures would be showing the importance of competency, public safety and trainer conduct, Clark said.

“The NBFE is establishing competency,” said Clark. “We are establishing public safety and conduct.”

Eventually, the ESCS hopes that its seal of excellence will become well-enough known that club members will look for the seal before selecting a personal trainer.

“Even if the certifying agencies don't endorse the ESCS, it will still grow because it will be marketed to the personal trainers,” Clark said. “They will see other trainers with this seal and they will want it, too.”

IHRSA is taking a “wait and see” stance on the two groups' efforts, preferring to let each group present to the certifying agencies at the March meeting and getting input from those agencies before deciding whether to support the efforts.

“We want to cultivate a situation where everyone can express their opinion and be heard,” said Howland at IHRSA. “We have to build consensus for the industry.”