BOSTON — Since 2002, certifying agencies have been meeting about a way to beef up the weight of valid certifying bodies while weeding out fly-by-night organizations. The meetings, hosted by the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association (IHRSA), are open to all certifying agencies. However, few of the certifying groups knew about the meetings in the beginning, and even now, some agencies are oblivious to their existence.

The groups who are meeting are divided about whether just one accrediting group should be recognized and about whether standardized testing should also be brought into the mix.

Based on discussions at past meetings, IHRSA has recommended that by December 31, 2005 health club owners only hire personal trainers who are certified by an agency that has been accredited by third-party accrediting agency National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA), which has already accredited the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA) and the American Council on Exercise (ACE). Some certifying groups are upset that IHRSA has limited the accepted accreditation companies to NCCA when two other national accrediting groups exist.

All of which has led to talk among some of the certifying groups about filing an anti-trust lawsuit against IHRSA.

Even though IHRSA made a recommendation, it ends up being seen as a requirement, said Sara Kooperman, a lawyer and CEO at SCW Fitness Education (formerly Sara City Workout). One of SCW's divisions offers certifications. While Kooperman said that she thinks IHRSA's intentions in making the recommendation were good, she said that a trade association making recommendations is a basic anti-trust issue.

Some certifying groups have reported that some health club owners already are not recognizing certifications offered by certifying agencies that have yet to be accredited by NCCA. Kooperman is concerned that exclusive support of NCCA accreditation could drive for-profit companies out of business, which would restrict competition in the marketplace and then decrease the number of certified personal trainers in the market. That in turn might drive up the price for personal training services to the consumer.

The process to get approved by NCCA can be expensive once a group hires a lawyer. Kooperman estimated that her cost to apply to NCCA would run from $30,000 to $50,000.

Part of the concern about NCCA is that it only recently began accepting applications for accreditation from for-profit companies. And since it began doing so in 2003, it has yet to accredit a for-profit group.

However, Vital Research, one of the other two accrediting groups in the country, has accredited for-profits as well as not-for-profits. In fact, it has accredited the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), which is a for-profit certifying agency.

Kooperman sent a written proposal to IHRSA asking the board to consider including Vital Research in its accrediting recommendation. She said that Vital Research meets the three criteria set by IHRSA for an acceptable third-party accreditation company: independence, national recognition and experience.

“The regrettable effect of IHRSA's stance is to penalize and discriminate against for-profit fitness certification organizations and pressure them into reorganizing themselves,” said Kooperman's proposal to IHRSA. “The certification organizations will be influenced to change their methods of doing business, in effect forcing them into not-for-profit status.”

The certifying organizations are meeting on Oct. 13 in Chicago prior to the Club Industry show. The groups will discuss third-party accreditation and criteria to determine what is an appropriate accrediting body from an industry perspective, said Bill Howland, spokesperson for IHRSA. A change in IHRSA's recommendation would require a vote by IHRSA's board of directors, which will meet at the October show.

Linda Pfeffer, president of AFAA, supports a two-pronged approach that includes third-party accreditation and standardized testing. The standardized testing could come from the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE), which in collaboration with some of the certifying organizations is developing a set of standardized tests. Trainers who pass the standardized tests would be entered on a national registry that would confirm their status as a national board-registered fitness trainer.

“Accreditation and standardized testing are different and distinct approaches to maintaining high standards in the fitness industry,” Pfeffer said. “The current proposal for accreditation will allow each certification organization to be accredited on the basis of its own certification policies and procedures. Standardized testing, by contrast, offers the prospect of uniform testing of knowledge and skills throughout the fitness industry. If standardized tests are recommended by certification organizations upon completion of their own certification programs, then all fitness trainers will ultimately be tested on the same knowledge and skills, and all certifications will be based on the same level of competence.”

Howland said it was unclear to what degree certifying groups support the idea of NBFE.

“IHRSA would want to hear from certification groups whether they think it is a good idea. But first thing is first. We are addressing the idea of third-party accreditation,” he said.