SANTA BARBARA, CA — Almost a year after the National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) began offering its written exam, anecdotal interviews with a small number of the 500 personal trainers who have taken the exam offer mixed reviews of the test.

“The exam itself was difficult,” says Keri Kaeding, owner of personal training business Radiant Fitness in Crittenden, KY. She took the exam in January without taking a prep course. “I was impressed with how complex the questions were. It required a lot of analysis for a multiple choice test.”

Kathleen Vanderselt, a personal trainer in St. Louis, took the exam six months ago without a prep course. The exam was similar in difficulty to her current certification exam, she says, but it was “just one step up in expertise level” because the questions delved deeper into some of the anatomy and physiology.

Edwin Ryan, assistant fitness coordinator at Florida International University's recreation center, took the exam in fall 2005. He was impressed by the exam's broad content. However, the broad content is what made the exam easy for Heath Gay.

“It was the easiest test I've ever taken in my entire life,” says Gay, who took the exam in December when he was employed at a corporate fitness facility and worked as an instructor at the National Personal Training Institute in Colorado Springs, CO, where he still teaches. “I understand why it was so easy because it has to cover such a wide range of knowledge. When you get so broad, you can only get so deep.”

The NBFE offers the written exam as a national board saying it defines scopes of practice for fitness professionals and sets a national standard for personal trainers. Fifteen certifying agencies are affiliated with the NBFE. An affiliated certifying group is one whose training programs and curricula have been approved by the NBFE. Personal trainers who sit for the NBFE exam must hold a certification from one of these affiliates (or hold a four-year degree). Most of the 11 certifying agencies that have followed the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association's recommendation about pursuing accreditation through the National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA) are not NBFE affiliates.

A growing number of personal trainers have registered to take the exam up to six months in advance to give them preparation time, says Dr. Sal Arria, executive director of NBFE. In response, national board review courses are being offered by affiliate organizations and colleges.

Currently, the written exam, which is Part I of the NBFE exam, can be taken at 250 Thomson Prometric sites. In a few months, the test will be available in a pencil-paper version at more sites, including at affiliate organizations' events and workshops. Regardless of where the exams are administered, they will be supervised by NBFE proctors, says Arria.

Part II of the exam, the practical portion, is in development with plans to make it available in 2007, says Arria. The NBFE has identified subject matter experts to assist in developing and testing the practical exam.

All of the personal trainers interviewed plan to take the practical exam when it is completed.

Credibility was the main reason the trainers took the NBFE exam.

“I was eager to have a credential [from an organization] that said it was a national regulatory board and to show I could pass that,” Vanderselt says.

Rhonda Ekstrom, fitness coordinator at Harbor Tennis and Fitness in Klamath Falls, OR, took the NBFE exam in June as a personal challenge and to increase the level of credibility she has with her clients, who are all professionals.

Gay took the written exam because NBFE promoted it as a test that every trainer would need to eventually have, he says. However, few of the trainers he has talked to have heard of the exam, and none of his students has signed up to take it despite his suggestion to do so.

Part of the issue may be that the NBFE has done little promotion beyond its affiliate agencies. Therefore, personal trainers who don't hold certifications from affiliated organizations may not be aware of the group.

The other issue may be money. Degrees, certifications and continuing education credits require a financial investment. Add to that fees for a prep course, study materials and the NBFE exam and it can price out trainers, especially those beginning their careers, Gay says.

Ekstrom's exam fee was paid for by her club, but she says the costs aren't too high since most trainers don't do everything at one time.

“It's going to cost money, but in this day and age, you can't do it for free and expect it to be valuable,” she says.

As supervisor of the personal trainers at his facility, Ryan requires that they be board certified by January and pass the practical exam when it is available. Instead of the club paying the exam fees, the facility will give the trainers who pass a 10 percent pay increase, Ryan says.

Money is one reason Dan Gaita is not a fan of the NBFE. Gaita is a personal trainer and offers an online personal trainer listing service at www.personaltrainer.cc.

“In theory, what NBFE wants to do is great, but in actuality, this is just another opportunity to grab a greater share of the personal trainer money,” Gaita says.

Gaita's other concern is that certifying agencies such as the American Council on Exercise, American College of Sports Medicine and the National Sports Conditioning Association have not chosen to become affiliates of the NBFE. Instead, these groups have pursued NCCA accreditation.

Ekstrom also expressed concern about this, saying that it divides the training community to not have all the groups be on the same page.

An issue that hurts NBFE credibility for Ryan is the exam's passing grade of 129 out of 180 scored questions, which equates to 71.9 percent. Ryan suggests it should be 90 percent instead.

“I don't know if we want someone to be training who missed 30 percent of the questions,” says Ryan. “We are saying that this person is competent, and I'm not sure [that they are competent].”

However, the passing grade was set based on input from Thomson Prometric, a testing development vendor, and from NBFE fellows.

“The passing grade is a product of the difficulty of the questions,” says Rob Sapp with the NBFE.

Regardless of a trainer's passing score, client results are what personal training is all about, says Gaita.

“In the end, it will come down to which trainers have which certifications and which trainers get the best results for their clients,” says Gaita.