Lisa Dougherty didn't start her personal training business, Whole Body Fitness, Costa Mesa, California, with the goal of launching a registry of health and fitness professionals. However, about two years ago, that's just what she did with the intent of connecting fitness professionals and fitness facilities with new clients who need specialized services.

After starting her business 20 years ago, Dougherty began receiving inquiries from people around the United States about how to find trainers who handled clients with health challenges as Dougherty does.

"I was wondering why everyone was coming to my website," said Dougherty, who works mostly with cancer survivors. "I knew there was a need out there for people with health challenges who were looking for fitness professionals and just not finding them."

Dougherty knew John Heydt, a doctor and the CEO of the University of California, Irvine Medical Center, who also served on the board of the Arthritis Foundation. In 2013, the Arthritis Foundation dropped its resources for exercise, and Heydt wanted to find a way to direct the foundation's constituents to exercise resources.

The two decided that creating a registry of fitness professionals around the country who specialize in health issues could be a resource not just for the Arthritis Foundation but also for other health-related groups. With that goal in mind, they created the Medical Fitness Network (MFN), which provides a free national network of more than 1,000 fitness and healthcare professionals with a background in treatment and rehabilitation of various chronic conditions or those needing pre- and post-natal care. The directory also includes about 100 health clubs and YMCAs with staff trained to handle a variety of conditions. The group is looking to increase both numbers. Professionals pay $99 to be listed, and facility operators pay $199 to be listed. 

MFN now partners with 12 health organizations to connect people within their groups with trainers and clubs that specialize in their conditions. The organizations include the Arthritis Foundation, the National Osteoporosis Foundation, World Parkinson's Program, Cancer Support Community and the Alzheimer's Research and Prevention Foundation. 

"All these medical and health organizations have been around for 50, 60 years, and they were promoting pharmaceutical management of these diseases," Dougherty said. "In just the last five to 10 years, they started saying diet and exercise are good, and here is a good place to get it. This network is so important because we have all these organizations that want it."

To reach those industries, Heydt connected with David Kruse, also a physician and former member of the U.S. national men's gymnastics team. Kruse now coordinates all the athlete care for the Olympics, and he joined with Heydt and Dougherty to develop MFN.

The group expanded the types of health professionals it lists to include acupuncturists, chiropractors, dietitians, health and wellness coaches, massage therapists and physical therapists.

Users of the website have conditions that include Alzheimer's, arthritis, cancer, diabetes, fibromyalgia, heart disease, mental disorders, Multiple Sclerosis, Parkinson's, pre- and post-natal care, respiratory disease and stroke. Before fitness professionals can be listed in the directory, a group of volunteers from the fitness industry and the medical community vet the professionals. Listed professionals must have a college degree in exercise or health, or they must have a nationally recognized certification. They also must list coursework they have completed in their area of specialty.

By being listed in the directory, the fitness professionals and the health clubs receive free advertising on the website and discounts from more than 100 companies, including more than 50 education and certification groups that offer discounts on certifications.

"There are over 100 companies that offer people benefits for being a part of this network," Dougherty said. "I don’t know any other membership organization out there that you could pay such a small fee a year and get benefits and discounts from 100 companies."

The listed trainers and facilities are invited to add articles within their scope of practice to the MFN website, and those articles get read by the partnering medical organizations and their memberships.

MFN also has a partnership with Sears in which listed trainers and clubs can go into one of Sears' 70 specialty fitness stores on the weekends to promote their services or club to Sears employees and customers.

Trainers and club operators who are MFN members also can receive education through a series of webinars that are free to them, including upcoming webinars on healthcare biases, emerging opportunities in the medical exercise field, expanding into cancer exercise training and more. 

"As people hear about this project, everyone wants to be a part of this platform, so I see even greater benefits along the way," she said.

As the population ages and more Americans are diagnosed with chronic conditions, a directory such as this one becomes even more important, Dougherty said. More than 100 million Americans are 50 years old or older, and more than 80 percent of older Americans have at least one chronic disease or medical condition, according to the Centers for Disease Control. Fifty percent of older Americans have two or more chronic conditions.