The Growth of the Fitness Professional Industry 

In response to decades of scientific data demonstrating the benefits of balanced nutrition and regular exercise for the universal and targeted prevention of many chronic diseases, the fitness industry has experienced tremendous growth in a variety of ways. The abundance of home gym and fitness equipment has exploded. Exercise video and nutritional supplement sales have skyrocketed. Perhaps the most dominant source of growth in the multi-billion, dollar fitness industry has been the use of personal fitness trainers in health clubs and in private studios. Since 1998, the number of Americans belonging to health clubs has grown over 23% or seven million members according to reports. The American Sports Data, Inc., a company that specializes in sports and fitness research since 1983, projected that 4,021,000 people in the United States alone paid for personal training services in 1998, and that number has significantly increased each year.

Personal trainers today must assume a higher level of responsibility for their clients. They must ensure that they deliver safe yet effective exercise programs to their clients in addition to providing the appropriate care and required supervision needed to help them achieve their individual fitness goals. Liability rests on fitness professionals, as they are directly responsible for the safety, health, and well-being of their clients. John Dietrich, past president of the American International Health Industries, stated that as far back as 1983: “There are no licensure requirements or mandated training programs for health club fitness instructors (as well as personal trainers), yet who can deny the grave responsibility of an individual whose job it is to assist people in vigorous exercise and the use of powerful machines?” Thirty-four [34] years later, the problem still exists. 

The National Strength and Conditioning Association concluded that “When personal trainers become thoroughly prepared and truly committed to providing the most effective exercise programs and the safest training environments, then this vocational pursuit will deserve the recognition of an allied health care profession.”

The Problem:  A Lack of National Standards and Scopes of Practice for Fitness Professionals  

In response to an array of lawsuits resulting from client injury and, more frighteningly, death, the fitness industry began scrutinizing the personal fitness profession. Lawsuits have been brought against both personal trainers and health clubs. In 2003, Dan Rather's nationally broadcast story "Who's Training the Trainers" sparked a media frenzy that included dozens of nationally syndicated articles written about the lack of regulations and standards in the fitness industry. Until recently, the industry did a fair job of self-regulation. However, the unfortunate reality is that today dozens of “Personal Trainer Certificates” are available for download from the Internet with no more required than the $39.95 fee. There are reportedly between 100 - 200 fitness certification companies offering education or “personal trainer certifications.” 

Unqualified programs compromise the integrity of the industry, creating problems for qualified personal trainers, health clubs, insurance companies, and consumers. Recently, several certification organizations have examined external program or test accreditation to address these issues. The International Health & Racquet Sport Association (IHRSA) has led some of these efforts to help improve the capacity for "self-regulation.” Program or test accreditation by a third party is a good step to ensure that certification organizations’ testing meets a modest standard of development and deployment. However, third-party accreditation of certifications, do not maintain educational requirements, content and process audits external to the accrediting body, and a process for evaluating the testing content once it has been established. Third-party accreditation also does not require that organizations survey and analyze at the industry level. Therefore, it is also imperative that an external, unbiased, nationally recognized, standards-based examination process exists to ensure that all fitness professionals meet certain levels of competency determined by their scope of practice.

World-renowned exercise scientists, practicing fitness professionals, and certification organization heads have stated in recent polls that they believe our industry is best served by individual competency evaluations conducted by a national board with an eye toward eventual state licensing. Today, National Board Exams are the benchmark for individual competency evaluation by virtually all medical and allied health care providers.

The Solution: The Creation of the NBFE

The NBFE was founded to fulfill two distinct needs as well as address a series of ancillary requirements. First, the NBFE will address and define a series of prescribed “scopes of practice” for fitness professionals. These definitions will likely include personal fitness trainers, group trainers, medical exercise specialists, and specialists in areas such as youth and senior fitness, and medical exercise specialists. This paradigm is common in other allied health professions including nursing, which has defined the roles for nurse’s assistants, licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, surgical nurses, and nurse practitioners.

The second need that the NBFE will address is determining the “standards of practice” for each of these roles and assessing fitness professionals based on those standards. The standards will be articulated as formal statements of skills and knowledge that are associated with specific roles in the fitness industry. From these standards, the Board will generate examinations deployed in a high-stakes testing environment in partnership with LaserGrade, one of the World’s leading international testing organization. While these assessment processes are a critical method to ensure public safety and improve our industry, we are also sensitive to the need for health clubs to keep their costs down and hire individuals with little to no experience. These needs will be addressed. At the same time, we recognize the need for highly qualified “medical exercise” specialists that can work with post-rehabilitation patients. To receive acceptance from traditional medicine, there must be clear differentiation between the levels of fitness professionals. Today the title "personal trainer" does not denote any level of competency.

Lobbying for insurance reimbursement is also a critical part of the NBFE plan due to the demonstrated cost savings benefits associated with healthier clients. Furthermore, personal trainer liability insurance companies recognize that qualified fitness professionals are less of a risk than non-qualified individuals. The NBFE will also tirelessly lobby primary care physicians, chiropractors and the organizations that oversee them to begin referring to Registered Personal Fitness Trainers and writing prescriptions for exercise. This will not only improve public health, but over the next five to ten years it will stimulate tremendous growth for all health clubs and fitness professionals.

How Does the NBFE Differ from a Fitness Certification Organization?  

There are several critical differences between the NBFE and a fitness certification organization. One primary difference is the inclusive nature of the NBFE. The NBFE was originated with an invitation to ALL major fitness certification organizations in the winter of 2003/2004. That invitation was echoed at a meeting during IHRSA’s Club Industry in the Spring of 2004, when the NBFE appealed to the entire industry for participation in the development of the examinations and the population of the Board and its Advisory Committees. To date, eighteen certification organizations have elected to participate in various way including nominating Fellows for the expert focus groups, applying for NBFE Affiliation, and serving on committees. Individual certification organizations do not provide industry-wide inclusion. Without this industry-wide perspective, they cannot represent industry-wide standards.

Another essential difference between the NBFE and a fitness certification organization is the process by which examinations are designed, developed and deployed. The nature of the design and development of the NBFE Personal Fitness Examination far exceeds any standards of development in the industry. Even those certification organizations that elect to pursue voluntary third-party accreditation are not required to complete the numerous internal checks and audits that the NBFE has adopted. Each phase of development is completed by the NBFE, reviewed by LaserGrade and audited by one or more organizations.

A third difference between the NBFE and a fitness certification organization is the breadth of input solicited by the NBFE. Some certification organizations include a few members from outside the immediate fitness industry in the boards or processes. The NBFE is driven extensively by Medicine, Academia, Clubs and Gyms, Trainers, Certification Organizations and related professionals to integrate all fitness perspectives into our practice and testing domains. There are discrete advisory committees for each of these organizations and the Board of Trustees includes members from each area. This dedication to include virtually all facets of the health and fitness community is unparalleled by any certification organization.

And finally, to further ensure competency above and beyond testing candidate’s knowledge through written exams, the NBFE is developing the first National Board practical or "hands-on" examination for personal fitness trainers. The NBFE will also incorporate the findings of an industry wide survey of health club management and those responsible for employing personal trainers, to objectively determine the strengths and weaknesses of the current educational and skill development process. The NBFE will provide this data to the participating Affiliate certification organizations to adjust their educational programs accordingly and ultimately, turn out a higher skilled personal fitness trainer.

The Structure of the NBFE

A Board of Trustees serving two or three-year terms governs the NBFE. These Trustees are responsible for the oversight of all facets of the NBFE’s operation. The NBFE Board of Examiners operates immediately under the Trustees and is responsible for the collective knowledgebase used to create and deploy all examinations. The Trustees will elect the Board of Examiners proper from the members of five advisory committees: (1) Medicine, (2) Certification Organizations, (3) Fitness Professionals, (4) Health Clubs, and (5) Academia. Each of these boards will provide recommendations and counsel to the NBFE in their specific areas of expertise. The Trustees also provide appointees to the NBFE to support areas not in the scope of the Advisory Committees, e.g., legal affairs, business, testing and psychometrics, etc. The Trustees also name the NBFE Fellows, a focus group of active personal fitness trainers assembled to conduct task and domain analyses, establish testing areas and objectives, build test blueprints, author test items, and complete related tasks. 

The NBFE will provide exam preparation materials directly to testing candidates and certification organizations. In the future, this content will be derived from old tests and topic lists rather than current curricular content, once again, modeling Medicine.     

NBFE Code of Ethics

The NBFE Registered Personal Fitness Trainer should:

  • Recognize that the principals of personal fitness training – improving physical strength, cardiovascular conditioning, flexibility,    nutrition and overall wellness – are primary tools to improve public health in the United States.

  • Regard client needs as the first responsibility in their practice. Recognize that client safety and health comes before all other fitness goals.

  • Provide competent personal training instruction that fosters client dignity, self-worth, and confidentiality.

  • Adhere to safe and recognized standards of practice and advocate healthy lifestyles for their clients.

  • Practice within their knowledge and skill domain and refer clients to other fitness and health professionals as necessary.

  • Actively maintain, upgrade and, where possible, add to the skills and knowledge domain of the fitness industry to increase their capacity to serve their clients.

  • Observe and practice within all local, state, and national statutes and laws.

  • Participate in a practice that is free of racial, cultural and gender bias and prejudice.

  • Honestly and completely represent professional knowledge and skills, training, certifications to clients, employers, and colleagues.

  • Involve clients in the decisions and determinations of all exercise programming.

  • Follow the highest standards of business principals, integrity and professionalism.

NBFE Position Statement and Code of Ethics