Washington, D.C., is set to announce new regulations on the city’s burgeoning fitness industry—and they could have major implications for personal trainers nationwide.
The D.C. City Council has passed a law requiring the city’s Board of Physical Therapy to develop new regulations around personal fitness trainer certifications. In other words, the city will now define who can call themselves a personal trainer—and who can’t.
The board has held public meetings to determine what those regulations will be, soliciting input from trainers and certification associations around the city. The board isn’t releasing any information about the regulations until it formally presents them on September 22, so it’s difficult to know how they’ll affect trainers in the nation’s capital. Once the board votes on regulations Sept. 22, the public will have another 30 days to comment and possibly ask for revisions before the rules take effect.
That’s when the real scrutiny begins and there’s a lot at stake for the city’s nearly 6,000 personal trainers, the gyms that employ them, and the people who hire them.
Proponents say the regulations will help ensure that personal trainers are competent, qualified, and held to a uniform set of standards across the industry. Some in favor of the regulations argue they would provide a unified framework to ensure trainers receive adequate training before they start getting people to pump iron or crank out pushups.
“This is a way to help and protect the consumer. You want everyone to understand and respect what the ground rules are for being a professional in the fitness and training space,” says Wade Delk, the government affairs director of the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals, an advocacy group within the U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals (USREP). USREP comprises many of the largest and most prominent organizations that certify trainers—including the National Strength and Conditioning Association, the American Council on Exercise, and the American College of Sports Medicine.
But critics say that unfairly restrictive regulations would do far more harm than good.
“We have so many titles in the industry that wrangling in one set standard is going to be pretty difficult without losing a lot of jobs,” says Phillip Godfrey, MES, a trainer at Medical Exercise Trainers in Washington, D.C., who has followed the proposed regulations closely in public meetings. “If the new standards say you have to have a degree and an NCCA-accredited certification, well, 75% of the market doesn’t have a degree. It would knock a lot of trainers out of the market.”
Godfrey, who also served as CEO and president of the American Society of Fitness Professionals from 2011-2013, points out that regulations pegged to a particular certifying agency’s standard would effectively grant that agency a monopoly on educating trainers. In that case, Godfrey says, training agencies like CrossFit—which has a strong foothold in the D.C. market and certifies its trainers through its own internal qualification system—would lose their ability to compete.
The regulations are limited to the D.C. metro area, but they could have a major ripple effect nationwide—for two reasons. For one, the nation’s city council is the first governmental group in the U.S. tackling regulation of personal trainers. “This is the groundbreaking group doing it,” says Delk. “They realize that everyone around the country is looking at them to see what they do with these regulations.”
Second, fitness is a big deal in Washington. The nation’s capital is rated the fittest U.S. city by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Anthem Foundation, with some 73% of the city’s residents saying they exercise with some regularity. So wherever the nation’s fittest city goes on trainer regulations, the thinking goes, the rest of the nation will follow.
Some proponents of the regulations have suggested they could help clamp down on malpractice, like the possibility of sexual misconduct or improper training methods that lead to injuries. But Godfrey insists those problems are largely specters without any backing in statistical data. “Everything they’re talking about here is anecdotal,” he says. “It seems to be more of a perception problem.” And, Godfrey points out, such malpractice could already be prosecuted in court—there’s no need for any additional regulations.
Delk suggests the requirements for uniform certifications would parallel other healthcare professions, like doctors and nurses. “It follows the best practices of adjacent professions to ensure that people are getting top-quality service,” he says. “If you’re going to suggest you need some kind of specialized training to provide a service, then we should make sure the folks in the space are as qualified as they can be.”
Godfrey, however, points out that medical practitioners face specific standards for each medical specialty. Orthopedic surgeons require different schooling and are held to different standards than general practitioners or radiologists. And whereas medical standards are vetted by subject-matter experts, Godfrey points out there’s no similar fact-checking body for personal training certifications.
Delk says that a coherent set of standards will have one positive effect for trainers themselves: “I’d think everyone in our profession wants the same thing: respect and recognition of their profession.”
Godfrey agrees. But above all, he suggests taking a wide view to accommodate as many trainers as possible—and their clients.
“I believe we need standards in our industry,” he says. “I just think we need to proceed with caution when we’re pursuing these standards. They need to be broad, and they need to be market-flexible.”