Four-year, fitness-related degrees that are also business-minded and experience-based are helping to elevate fitness professionals’ status in a time of high demand.
It's a basic law of economics in the fitness industry. The market price of a personal training session, group exercise program or a standard fitness assessment is the intersection of member demand and a club owner's resources. When supply equals demand, prices move towards a fair price. But what happens when demand outweighs supply? Or when supply isn't exactly high quality? Fitness facility owners are dealing with this problem.
“It's hard to find good, quality trainers,” says Mark Thom, vice president of fitness services at Life Time Fitness, Eden Prairie, MN. “You look at them on paper, and they meet qualifications, but those qualifications have to come to life. The practical application is the challenge.”
The ability to find quality trainers may become even more difficult as more people turn to personal training services. Between 2004 and 2014, the U.S. Department of Labor projects a 27 percent or more increase in the employment of fitness workers.
This year, Life Time Fitness plans to hire 700 personal trainers, due to turnover and club growth. The club chain currently employs more than 1,200 personal trainers in its 60 centers in 13 states. Besides having an in-house program that prepares all its trainers, the company recruits recent four-year graduates.
Life Time Fitness is not alone in seeking four-year degreed trainers. An increasing number of fitness employers favor employees with a bachelor's degree in a field related to health or fitness in addition to a national certification, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. Although Life Time Fitness doesn't require its staff to have a four-year degree, the benefits of having one are evident, Thom says.
“We know a lot more about someone with a four-year degree because we know they've been in school four years, they're organized, they've managed their time, have a good work ethic, etc.,” he says. “And that says a lot.”
The issue for many club operators, though, isn't just finding personal trainers and other fitness staff with a four-year degree. It is finding the right employees. Many times the typical exercise science or physiology degree doesn't fully prepare students for the real health club world.
“The degrees are still too general. Some students never receive an opportunity to intern or work in a health-related facility,” says Jasmine Jafferali, fitness and wellness manager at the East Bank Club in Chicago. “This makes the graduate vulnerable to experience that they never learn in a collegiate setting, such as customer service skills, interpersonal relationship skills and marketing, to name a few.”
More than 35 degreed and certified fitness professionals conduct upwards of 1,000 personal training sessions each week at the 450,000-square-foot East Bank Club. Each trainer must have a four-year health-related degree and a specified certification. To work on the club floor, a degree isn't required but is preferred. Many times, the club hires candidates who are working towards their degree in exercise science, says Jafferali.
“We have to remember that we are still in the infancy in our industry, and there is still a lot of growth and change that needs to happen,” she says.
A handful of universities are tapping into the demand for this type of education, including two Indiana schools: Indiana University (IU) in Bloomington and Purdue University in West Lafayette.
IU started its fitness specialist program in the fall of 2003. The 124-credit-hour program consists of four years of exercise science courses, 24 credit hours of core fitness classes (including fitness management) and 18 hours of electives, along with general education classes, off-campus field experiences and an internship. After completion, students leave with a bachelor of science through IU's School of Health, Physical Education and Recreation.
“We've watched our number of students grow from 35 to 70 to 150-plus students,” says Michelle Miller, IU fitness specialist degree coordinator. “It's almost bigger than we are.”
The program is different from most.
“Students who want to major in fitness often begin in exercise science curriculums and find they want to work with people and not be scientists,” says Carol Kennedy-Armbruster, lecturer in the Department of Kinesiology at IU. “At IU, we have accommodated for that by having a fitness specialist program ‘within’ the exercise science area of concentration where the students take the hard sciences, applied leadership and a fitness management class versus focusing only on the hard sciences.”
Starting in the 2005 fall semester, Purdue began offering its undergraduates who were pursuing a health and fitness major a specialization in personal fitness training. While the health and fitness major focuses on the exercise physiology basics, the personal fitness trainer concentration covers topics related to aging, injury prevention, nutrition, business and marketing, and weight management. Purdue's students also participate in eight, six-week rotations in various locations such as commercial health clubs, as well as centers for cardiac rehabilitation, physical therapy, athletic training, senior fitness, children's fitness and worksite wellness. Now in its second year, about 30 students are enrolled in the program.
“By incorporating degrees emphasizing the skill sets that large health clubs to small personal training studios have been requesting for a number of years, not only will the students graduating from degree programs have better job opportunities, but also employers will be able to increase the value of their businesses by having a well trained and educated staff to design exercise programs for many members with different health concerns and goals, and to have employees who know how to implement the proper systems to administer and manage the business aspects of a health and fitness department,” says Ken Baldwin, assistant director and program coordinator for Purdue's personal fitness training major.
Several groups have been interested in the Purdue program — fitness facilities looking to recruit graduates and universities interested in starting a program of their own, Baldwin says.
“In the last couple of years, I've had an opportunity to see colleges and universities interested in changing their degree programs to provide courses to students interested in careers in personal training and becoming a fitness professional,” he says of his experience presenting lectures on developing degree programs for both two- and four-year institutions.
Other schools should consider offering this type of degree because the need is there, Kennedy-Armbruster says.
“Our industry needs to value it, encourage it and hire those that are getting degrees when it is possible,” she says. “It will be a while before the supply of fitness professionals equals the demand. Right now, I believe the demand for professionals with a degree is higher than the supply, so often a non-degreed person fills that spot.”
Though less intensive than a four-year program, two-year certificate programs are increasing in popularity, too. Olivia Templeton, faculty at the Glendale Community College's fitness and wellness department in Glendale, AZ, receives inquiries about the college's personal training certificate program from other schools looking to start a similar program. The community college started offering the certificate in the spring of 1990. Since then, more than 700 people have completed the program, which usually takes about two years because most students take classes on a part-time basis. The program is 13 credits and includes hands-on experience.
“There are always a few exceptions, but on the whole, the best trainers are the ones that have had training from a credible institution with educated instructors and lots of practical skills training,” she says.
Both degreed and non-degreed fitness professionals work at the North Mississippi Medical Center (NMMC) Wellness Centers in Tupelo, MS. While some fitness instructors and personal trainers have degrees in physical education, fitness management and exercise science, some of the centers' fitness assistants and personal trainers don't have a degree, but they are certified.
“I think that our members are comfortable with both levels [of education],” says Hank Boerner, director of three NMMC Wellness Centers and president of the Medical Fitness Association. “It just depends on what they are looking for in a trainer. We charge the same for both.”
Nationally, about 35 percent of Life Time Fitness' personal trainers are degreed. The company doesn't advertise its trainers' qualifications, but it does make their biographies available, although the public probably doesn't understand the different acronyms, Thom says.
However, education can elevate the effectiveness and safety of a workout that a personal trainer designs for a client, says Miller.
“Most clubs tend to have the philosophy that the more we know the more liable we can be,” she says. “But what if we did have people out there with a higher level [of education]? It's what you can lose versus what you can gain.”
Programs that focus on business and provide hands-on learning can also help club owners solve the dilemma of hiring a strictly business person or a fitness person, says Kennedy-Armbruster.
Better educated personal trainers may also indirectly equate to higher profits, better retention and drawing in new members, a possibility that some clubs reward their trainers for financially. Graduates from these programs will be paid more for one-on-one training and for their ability to manage departments and implement systems, Baldwin says.
However, pay can vary widely from one facility to another, Miller says.
“I would like to think of it in these terms — if five individuals are in line for a job, then our kids would move to the front due to their education and experience,” she says.
After a six-month period, Life Time Fitness trainers with a four-year degree jump to a higher pay range than those with only a certification.
Four-year degrees may also help bridge the gap between the fitness industry and the medical community, possibly making insurance reimbursement more universal. Whenever any field becomes more professional and the knowledge base is raised within, it will get more respect from other professionals, says Kennedy-Armbruster.
“Of course, the other fact is that insurance companies and corporations have to value and invest in prevention, which is a long-term investment,” she says. “This is often hard for businesses to do. However, due to the rising cost of health care, I think it is now becoming imperative to embrace prevention efforts and thus look for quality people to assist with these efforts.”
Although it may be a while before the supply of degreed fitness professionals with practical and business knowledge meets the demand, many believe this higher level of education will eventually help fitness graduate to professional status.
“We need to raise the bar on how this profession is viewed,” Thom says. “Experience is really the killer qualification.”