Let’s Compare Industries: Regulated Vs. Non-regulated

Think of a cereal box in your local grocery store, and all the numerous claims food companies make. Claims like “all natural,” (it is made in a factory), “lowers cholesterol” (don’t think a cereal can actually do that), and “low sugar” (compared to what?) are in fact claims, loosely defined and meant to lure the shopper into purchasing. Unfortunately, falsified claims exist everywhere in health and fitness. With our focus being on fitness, let’s investigate what a fitness professional means by today’s standards. Especially on social media, there are a lot of false claims.  

The fitness industry to date is considered widely unregulated. What does this mean exactly? Licensure does not model that of other industries, such as dietitians, physical therapists, or nurses. For illustration, I will share my experience within an industry considered regulated, and then as a fitness professional.

Imagery by Adobe Stock EtiAmmos

My first career was as a speech language pathologist. As a therapist, I was upheld by state licensure and national licensure laws. To practice as a therapist, one must complete the following:

  1. Obtain Bachelor’s Degree.
  2. Study, take GRE, and apply for entrance into master’s degree program.
  3. If you get in (and some did not), upon entry into graduate school, you must then complete a series of courses, do an internship in three places in the field (unpaid), and complete thesis and/or research project for graduation.
  4. Take national certification exam (Praxis exam) to be eligible for Certificate of Clinical Competence (at the time called CFY).
  5. Upon receiving CFY (interim licensure), complete one year as CFY (you make a starter salary but are not yet fully certified).
  6. After your CFY is up, apply for CCC’s. You have finally made it as a licensed therapist!
  7. Apply for state and national licensure. Pay those fees annually and retain two sets of continuing education credits biannually under these umbrellas. My state performs routine audits.

With exception to minor differences, these were guidelines that were consistent for each practicing therapist in the United States. The expectations were clear. Although my background was in medical speech pathology, the same standards existed for a speech therapist that worked in schools practicing speech sounds with kids (hardly a liability, although equally respectable).

My experience as a fitness professional:

  1. It was “recommended” I get a group fitness instructor certification when I interviewed and got the job. Thankfully, my personal training experience was a little more stringent. They asked me to get a certification through NASM or ACE, preferably. This varies from gym to gym.  
  2. Obtain certification via online study, pick and choose from a series of “certifications” that range widely in cost from cheap (less than $80) to expensive ($799+).
  3. I chose a reputable source for certification (more expensive) and therefore maintain my CEC’s through this organization to date. No state or national licensure exists, so I am not bound by the certification I received online. Very little rules. This is an ethical choice for me.

Given the limited regulations that exist, there are several organizations that do their best to educate and ready a future fitness professional. However, there are major differences between learning to become a speech therapist and learning to become a fitness professional. This fact is outstanding to me considering being a fitness professional is just as crucial of a position if not more than my role as a therapist. A very small portion of the overall population need a speech therapist, whereas health statistics indicate well over 50% of the U.S. population would benefit from a fitness professional. It is no hidden fact that obesity and increasing health-related problems associated with obesity and sedentary living are on the rise, with studies projecting 65 million more obese adults in the United States by 2030 (as opposed to 2011 when the study was published). According to these statistics, the argument for effective policies that promote more healthier living styles “will have economic benefits”. In other words, it is on the forefront that as fitness professionals we will be on the front line of defense for the rising health related obesity issues (see IHRSA article here). If $0.71 of every dollar spent on healthcare goes to treating people with multiple chronic conditions, (many of which are largely preventable with regular exercise and health habits), then policymakers will start to look at us as fitness professionals as key players in decreasing healthcare costs by preventing these issues from arising in the first place.

The key differences when training as a fitness professional:

  1. There was no hands-on training. One graduates as a trainer or fitness instructor without any direct experience training or coaching fitness.
  2. Pre-requisites for personal training certification are considered fairly “relaxed.” NCCA accredited certifications require that you be 18 years old, CPR certified, and have a high school diploma or equivalent. However, there are many personal training certification examinations that are not NCCA accredited.

“The take home is, to be certified as an allied health professional, I was upheld by national standards and had a lengthy series of pre-requisites (including education, entrance examinations, hands on training, and only then a certification exam). As a fitness professional, the path essentially began and ended with the certification exam.  Everything else was up to me to establish with little to no external support.”

In 2008, there were at least 19 different personal training certification organizations available, and a purported 200 organizations offering fitness certifications. As of writing this post, I found 22, with two offering personal training certifications under $100. With so many organizations having their own criteria for membership and status, there is no regulation or assurance that personal trainers working in the field are “qualified” by any one set of guidelines. Some exams are open book, others on site under standardization. Other fields have recognized this problem of multiple differing standards and have moved to one certification organization and state licensure to ensure the public that only those qualified may practice (as working as a therapist has done).

Relatively few accredited research articles exist to date that evaluate personal trainer education. A study completed in 2017 and published by PubMed, evaluated the range of qualifications by 605 personal trainers. The results of this study indicated that 64.2% held an exercise related bachelor’s degree. Of the participants assessed, 89.0% held a “certification” in personal training, with the most common being the American College of Sports Medicine (59.2%). The other 40.8% were qualified via any other number of certification examinations. Variability in the practices of personal trainers was vast. Thankfully, despite little regulation in the industry, only 2.9% were of all trainers surveyed had no qualifications, degree or certification (although 2.9% is enough one could argue).  This at least gives us faith that most individuals want to receive education prior to training people, but will how many people choose the least expensive option?

The good news, there is light at the end of a very long tunnel, so to speak. Many organizations are working hard to change this. These fantastic people are working extremely hard to establish regulations within the fitness industry. There is a ways to go, but today we’d like to share what they are doing.

The NCCA attempts to provide some form of regulation. NCCA stands for National Commission for Certifying Agencies. Established in 1987 by the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, the NCCA is an independent, non-governmental agency that sets the standard for professional certification programs via NCCA accreditation. Many personal training certifications and group fitness certifications fall under the NCCA umbrella. However, not all do. ISSA is accredited, but under a different organization (DTEC, the Distance Education Training Council) for instance. Some select few are not considered accredited at all.

Example of online certification option

The Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals ® (CREP) is a nonprofit corporation composed of organizations that offer NCCA-accredited exercise certifications. Coalition members are “committed to advancing the fitness profession and earning recognition as a health provider for practitioners.” This organization is hard at work to create a regulated industry. The mission and vision of CREP is very important to us fitness professionals wanting recognition. See their mission/vision below:

“The mission of CREP® is to secure recognition of registered exercise professionals for their distinct roles in medical, health, fitness and sports performance fields.  CREP®’s vision is for consumers and other allied health professionals and policymakers to recognize registered exercise professionals for their leadership and expertise in the design and delivery of physical activity and exercise programs which improve the health, fitness and athletic performance of the public.”

CREP® maintains the United States Registry of Exercise Professionals®(USREPS®), an internationally recognized registry of exercise professionals in the United States, and as an advocate for the exercise professional who holds NCCA-accredited exercise certification on issues that pertain to regulation, access and scope of work.  Check them out here.

How does this translate? Those initials behind your name give you a reputation. Having standards provides us with a distinction as experts in the field of health and wellness.  How do we expect to be respected on the frontlines of prevention, if we do not adhere to a set of national standards set? How can we expect fair, and legitimate compensation when there is little that distinguishes one “certified” fit pro to the next?

Truth be told, I used to sigh at such lengthy processes for earning and maintaining certification as a speech therapist. I had the impression they were just taking my money and had no idea or understanding of what they were doing with that money. I had little appreciation for what it took to create and maintain a set of standards, with evidence-based practice on what worked and securing continuous education opportunities under one umbrella. Now, I am enlightened as I have had the opportunity to work in an industry that is unregulated.  We were all held by the same standards in the allied health industry. Especially with the advent of Instagram and other social media platforms, anyone can call themselves a fitness coach, trainer, health coach or otherwise.

One thing is for sure. Those fitness professionals that work hard to maintain a level of continuous learning, maintain education, and follow credible organizations are key players to increasing the value of the profession. We are in the dawn of a new era. As health concerns continue to rise and insurance companies as well as government programs pay more attention to prevention of health conditions as opposed to simply treating problems after they arise, fitness professionals are in the forefront as assistants to illness prevention.


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