Should Personal Trainers Require Government Licenses?

It’s been awhile since my last post and you’re about to find out why. I first heard about D.C. licensure law for fitness professionals over two weeks ago and it has taken me this long to look into it and form a semi-cohesive viewpoint on it. As you can see, it’s a somewhat complex issue. So here goes….

Currently, a new law in Washington D.C. seeks to mandate licenses for “personal fitness trainers.” The law was drafted in part by a group called the Board of Physical Therapy.

Within my industry, there is a controversy brewing, and with good reason. For instance, why is an unelected “Board of Physical Therapy” drafting legislation that applies to personal trainers?

Also, why is much of the opposition to the law coming from practitioners of CrossFit and owners of CrossFit facilities?

Why should such a law require personal trainers to hold four-year degrees in exercise science when many of us have been in the industry for decades and helped build it into the multibillion-dollar industry it is today?

Who really benefits from this licensure law? Is it the consumer, because the trainer will be undoubtedly held to a higher standard of training? Is it the government, because they will be able to lay claim to a groundswell of greater public health and safety (and the trainers will have to pay for their licenses, so there’s some money in it)? Is it government workers’ unions, because this mandate will create government jobs? Is it the fitness industry, because this law will start to address the less-than-ideal image of personal trainers as a bunch of meathead young’uns, usually working on commission in big-box gyms, who think that because THEY THEMSELVES are jacked (or because they’ve read about how to “pump, YOU UP” in a book), that means they know how to get SOMEONE ELSE jacked as well? “And you need me, bro, you need me.”

Based on my reading of the law, all of these concerns have validity. Trainers should be held to a high standard. The government should be concerned with improving people’s health and safety (even in America’s fittest city). Government workers’ unions should rejoice at the creation of more jobs. The fitness industry, like all industries, should embrace a swift kick in the rear every once in a while.

As it is, I don’t trust the government we have now to do much of anything for the best interests of almost anyone. It is not because the government in D.C. is Democrat and I’m a Republican. Nor is it because there are some Republicans in office, and I’m a Democrat. The reason is that I have observed what both parties have done in the past to address “the public good,” and in almost every instance, the main benefactor is one bunch of lobbyists, one massive corporation, one billionaire or another.

Now, let me say clearly that I support single-payer healthcare. I think we should kick the insurance companies in the crotch; government-run healthcare, equal and accessible and free for all, is the answer. Obviously, I don’t mean to contradict my earlier statement. Until there is a massive new influx of outside-of-the-box thinkers in government (so therefore neither Democrats nor Republicans, because both of those parties are owned by corporations, and, I’ll admit, misguided unions), the possibility of single-payer happening, let alone being well-run, is practically nil.

So my suspicion towards our government continues when it comes to effectively regulating personal training. I don’t kid myself; the fitness industry has its problems. But let’s talk about where those problems come from, and whether licensure can address them. Unfortunately, such problems are not unique to the fitness industry; they are reflections of our popular culture in general.

As an industry trying to grow, fitness professionals (and not-so-professionals) have repeatedly embraced problematic cultural mandates. Instead of encouraging positive lifestyle changes and the transition to a healthy lifestyle, some fitness professionals actually encourage and play on ideas like “GET SKINNY! GET BIG! GET SEXY! GET JACKED! GET A BIG BUTT! GET ABS! LOSE THAT FAT! FAT IS EVIL!” in order to propel their careers, playing on the emotions and insecurities of the client concerning weight and body image in general.

On top of that, we’re often “correcting your form,” telling you what you’re doing wrong and why you need us. These tendencies contribute to the poor image of personal trainers as elitist, judgment-oriented, snobby, and manipulative at best.

At worst, personal trainers are seen as incompetent and dangerous. Appealing to such cultural sensibilities as I describe above often leads to irresponsible fitness practices: inappropriate exercise programming, unlicensed nutrition advice, supplement-pushing, starvation diets, too-heavy weights or lifts for which the client has not been properly progressed, an underemphasis on corrective exercise and flexibility, et cetera. The trainer should be working to empower and inform the client for her overall long-term improvement. As it says in the ACE Personal Trainer Manual, the American Council on Exercise’s textbook to become a certified personal trainer,

Many personal trainers are afraid to teach their clients to be independent because they fear that their services will no longer be needed. In reality, failing to build client independence is related to less-motivated clients who will ultimately be more likely to drop out. On the other hand, people who enjoy the experience are likely to continue working a personal trainer and remain involved in an exercise program (ACE 30).

But the mindset of the fitness industry opportunist instead aims to establish a dependency of the client on the trainer, whereby as soon as their working relationship ends, the client’s bad habits all reappear.

Rather than saying, “oh wow; all of my weight came back. My trainer didn’t really help me at all,” the client will say, “Gee, I really messed up. I guess I need my trainer back.”

What I’m leading to is this: can licensure address any of these problems, practices, or prejudices? Not really.

When making any argument about licensure, the obvious examples of its success or failure are medical doctors and lawyers. Now, on a personal basis, I have had great doctors who did their best to help me, and I have had doctors who performed unnecessary surgeries, prescribed useless drugs, and tried to convince me that I needed them even though nothing they had done so far had actually addressed the problem.

Similarly, there are plenty of examples of lawyers who perform great services to society, and also those who are the reason, plain as day, for an entire category of “lawyer jokes.”

Therefore, it’s not a matter of whether licensure will solve problems of character on the part of the practitioner. It’s a matter of whether the culture that shapes that practitioner’s value system is being challenged and improved upon.

So, getting back to the licensing of personal trainers, it doesn’t seem quite cricket to me that a Board of Physical Therapists—who are indeed required to receive more schooling, and, incidentally, earn more on average yearly than us lowly personal trainers—should have anything to do with writing bills that affect us and not them.

The good side of effective personal training is maintained by those benevolent individuals who are well-trained and well-adjusted, and whose morals have not been compromised for the promise of higher income. In addition to strengthening muscle, increasing muscle size, improving performance, and reducing bodyfat, these wonderful men and women possess the ability to correct muscle imbalances, reverse the effect of harmful movement patterns, and encourage the type of positive lifestyle changes that prevent injury, illness, and unhappiness, many of the exact same maladies which cause people to seek the care of chiropractors, medical doctors, psychiatrists, and physical therapists.

In other words, personal training’s lower-cost options (albeit not covered by health insurance, which I think personal training should be, but that’s another article), are theoretically “taking money out of the pockets” of physical therapists.

Now let me be perfectly clear: physical therapists, like the other specialists I mention above, are an important part of the overall healthcare team in America. I refer my clients to a physical therapist on a regular basis when it is warranted. But all of the defects I ascribe above to personal trainers could apply to physical therapists.

Instead of advocating for a more healthy or active lifestyle, or taking any root-cause-analysis approach at all, it’s very possible for a physical therapist to recommend courses of action that result in a dependency of client on therapist. Same goes for chiropractors and licensed massage therapists. Does licensing prevent or address this questionable practice? No.

So would physical therapists want us to get licensed so that we CAN charge more for services? So that we CAN be covered by healthcare? So that we CAN take more of their business away, theoretically? That doesn’t make a hell of a lot of sense. More likely, they want to hobble our ability to work freely and openly, wherever we want, and charge whatever we want, while they are subject to certain regulations in terms of such things.

The government, meanwhile, in the good intentions of its public health-conscious mayor, Muriel Bowser, would probably have joined hands with a Board of Personal Trainers if one were to present itself to them. But personal trainers are not being financially threatened, theoretically. Physical therapists are. Right? So the physical therapists organized into a “Board” and started lobbying the government to protect their interests. This is America. That’s just what you do.

Oh, but wait one moment. There are some organizations who support licensure, such as the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), who are themselves in the business of certifying personal trainers. I will agree with this author on her point that perhaps it is because such certifiers feel threatened at the rise of Crossfit, whose certifications are only available from Crossfit, the company, whether out of a belief that the substandardness of Crossfit certification creates concerns for the client’s safety, or merely for reasons of decreased profits. I think we can assume it does indeed relate to profits.

So personal trainers ARE being threatened. Oh wait, not trainers; certifying organizations. Maybe that’s why there was no Board of Personal Trainers. Huh.

[Full disclosure: I am certified by the National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM). I reached out NASM to inquire about their position on DCFit. A representative informed me they had no position on it at this time.]

Meanwhile, owners of Crossfit facilities and supporters of the self-styled “sport of fitness” seem to stand pretty firmly against any licensure legislation and “big government” in general when it comes to regulating fitness professionals, while Crossfit’s reputation for injury (keyword: reputation) grows almost as quickly as the number of Crossfit gyms and the coaches who operate them. Is this because they don’t want more stringent laws dictating who can identify as a “fitness professional”? I personally have met many current or former Crossfitters who were injured doing Crossfit, at least as many of them who weren’t.

Of course, I have barely met a trainer or athlete who has never been injured either. But if you watch the CrossFit games, you see extremely problematic exercise form; injuries occur left and right, right in the middle of the games themselves. Injuries and pushing yourself too far seem to be almost a part of CrossFit culture. I don’t know. Seeing these things raises eyebrows and red flags.

Could it be that CrossFitters are indeed a vehement opponent of licensure because they want to keep it the way it is now so they can keep their gyms open and keep making money, regardless of how many injured people they leave behind? Or it is because they feel like CrossFit is being targeted for a perhaps-unwarranted bad reputation (see link above)?

Despite Crossfit’s proclivity, real or reputed, to produce injuries, I personally don’t want to see hundreds of fitness facilities—where plenty of people do see positive results and cultivate fitter versions of themselves, to say nothing of the workers at these facilities—shut down indefinitely.

Here’s a thought: how about government actually “working with small businesses” to address this “problem”? Oh, and if the government cares that much about protecting people’s health, how about it fund some actual scientific studies to support its position instead of taking detractors at their word? (Note: to you anti-CrossFit folk out there: Let me know if there are any studies that I have missed).

Additionally, I wouldn’t be so presumptuous and arrogant as to besmirch, in broad strokes and without evidence, the integrity of ALL CrossFit coaches when so many of them, and the “boxes” they run, have contributed positively to the health and fitness identity of so many people. There are plenty of CrossFit coaches who put in the time to learn the gravity of fitness in society and in people’s everyday lives (if they didn’t know it already), who emphasize form and safety, who aren’t just cashing in on a hot trend, and who deserve to be protected from having their business potentially gutted.

So I guess I am at least somewhat suspicious of all sides.

I do an excellent job training people. I can’t afford more schooling right now and it would disrupt my career and my career plans of eventual gym ownership if I was required to stop training and go back to school. And if I did go back, I have a feeling the government wouldn’t foot the bill. It would just be taking my job away.

As someone whose degree is in English, the Board of Physical Therapists would perceive my lack of a four-year exercise science degree as a limit to my viability as a fitness professional. But I’ve always felt that my strong communication skills, which I cultivated writing papers about Junot Diaz and Jane Austen, are part of what make me a great trainer.

If there’s one thing a trainer needs to be able to do, it’s express himself or herself in a way that the client will understand. If the client doesn’t understand why she’s doing a certain thing, she’ll stop doing it. Or she’ll do it wrong and hurt herself. Pretty simple really. So I don’t think it’s at all fair to place the barrier of a four-year degree between becoming a “personal fitness trainer” and people who truly want to help people, especially for those who have been in the business a lot longer than I have.

In conclusion, (Yay!!), I don’t think this government—which refuses to label GMO food, which doesn’t mandate health class, which sneaks cuts to food-stamp programs into its farm bills, which invites insurance companies to write its healthcare legislation, which hastens the privatization of education and allowed student debt to exceed $1 trillion, which illegalizes poverty instead of combating it, and which bailed out the banks—has the time, the energy, the inclination, or the know-how to do virtually anything of great efficacy related to “fitness,” not because it’s stupid but because giving people access to quality fitness resources is not related to its interests.

I’ll admit, drug addiction prevention, increased mental healthcare coverage, veteran care….government can do SOME of these things FAIRLY well. But the vast majority of politicians are not unlike the majority of medical doctors: while they may know a lot about some things, they know very little about fitness and nutrition, and they use their positions of authority to advance agendas that actually hurt people and small businesses.

I think if you want to pass laws that help keep fitness professionals accountable, then do it. But you don’t keep us accountable by handing us over to lobbyists, by forcing us to add to our still-extant student debt, or by allowing a lot of unnecessary red tape and poorly conceived, poorly rolled out regulation to dissuade people who genuinely want to help others from entering this industry which needs them.

Thank you for reading.

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