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Credibility In the Fitness Industry
by Justin Leonard
Written on November 24, 2004

Credibility in a health and fitness setting can have many meanings. The word credibility itself is sometimes hard to define. We each have our own idea and perception of what credibility is. But how can we determine who to trust when seeking advice? What is credibility? What does it actually mean to be a fitness professional? What does it mean to be a fitness expert?

Credibility is defined as the quality or power of inspiring belief. Based on this definition, most of the infomercials shown on television would be considered credible. They make people believe that there is a benefit to using the product being sold. But credibility goes beyond its basic definition. The fitness industry has very specific interpretations and definitions of credibility.

What does it mean to be a fitness professional?

A professional is the term used for anyone who possesses advanced knowledge of a profession or trade. Technically, those who are in the fitness industry don't necessarily need to have a nationally recognized fitness certification or a degree based solely on this definition. They are simply expected to know more than the average person about the field of work that they're in. In fact, no state has a law in place that requires a personal training certification or a degree in order to be considered a fitness professional. Similarly, there are absolutely no governing bodies that oversee the practices of the fitness industry as a whole.

What does it mean to be a fitness expert?

The actual definition of the word expert is having, involving, or displaying special skill or knowledge derived from training. Again, it doesn't necessarily have the same meaning in a fitness setting.

In order to be a fitness expert, one should have at the minimum, a bachelor's degree in exercise science, kinesiology, human biomechanics, exercise physiology, or exercise and wellness. Ideally, a true fitness expert is generally regarded as one who holds at least a graduate degree in any exercise-related field.

"Fitness expert" is an extremely broad term, even for someone with a master's degree or higher. Since there are several components of fitness, it would be hard for someone to be an expert in every category. However, it is possible to possess various levels of fitness expertise.

"Expert" is used so much in fitness that the value the word itself is sometimes diminished. There are many infomercial fitness experts. One usually never knows what qualifications they hold other than "trainer to the stars" or "celebrity personal trainer." Likewise, there are even more internet fitness experts with absolutely no reputable qualifications to show for. But based solely on the definition, they could in fact be considered fitness experts.

What does it mean to be a fitness consultant?

The definition of a consultant is one who gives professional advice or services. Anyone can legally call themselves a consultant for almost anything, regardless of their qualifications. There are a few exceptions to this rule, but generally speaking, anyone can do it. In a fitness setting, however, one should at least possess a credible, nationally recognized personal training certification in order to be a consultant. A credible certification is one that is not for profit, requires a minimum number of experience hours, a current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certification, a practical workshop that offers hands-on training and skill testing, and in some cases an undergraduate degree. Examples of credible organizations that offer personal training certification include the following:

  • National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA)

  • The Cooper Institute

  • American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM)

The certifications offered through many commercial gyms are less credible because they don't hold their trainers to the same testing standards. Commercial gyms are also "for profit" institutions. As such, they are more likely to sacrifice the quality and integrity of their personal training programs to increase their bottom line (money). Anyone, even those with little or no experience, can be certified within a few days.

". . . credibility goes beyond its basic definition."

- Justin Leonard, ISSA CFT

What about those who hold no qualifications but have achieved success (e.g. weight loss) in fitness and wish to share their stories or use their personal experiences to help others while earning a living doing so? Technically, this is perfectly acceptable. But they could also be walking a thin line with the legal system. For example, if liability issues arise, they wouldn't be able to show the court system that they have met and maintained industry-specific guidelines that might include possessing a nationally recognized personal training certification, being able to show competencies in CPR, and in some cases having a 4-year degree in a fitness- or nutrition-related field.

What does it mean to be a nutritionist?

A nutritionist is one who holds at least an undergraduate degree that is approved by the American Dietetics Association (ADA). Additionally, to obtain the title of nutritionist, one must perform an internship, pass a national certification exam, and complete continuing education requirements. The term nutritionist is exclusively reserved for those who are registered dieticians. They are literally registered/licensed in the state that they operate in, just as an attorney or doctor would be. According to the ADA, a person is considered an "expert" in nutrition if they have obtained a 4-year nutrition degree.

Final Thought

Fitness credibility can be defined in many ways. Everyone has goals in fitness, but when seeking advice be cautious of the information source. Ask yourself, "Is this person, group, or organization credible?" It's important to be able to distinguish between words such as professional, expert, or consultant. It is also important to note that in some cases you may not want to totally discredit those who don't have professional certifications or collegiate education. For example, some athletes can be potentially good sources of information. They may possess certain levels of knowledge and skill that can only be obtained through years of hands-on experience.

Finally, when evaluating a source of information for reliability, locating the credentials of a person, group, or organization should be fairly simple to find. It may require a bit of research, but the information should be easily accessible. In some cases, you may have to politely ask what credentials someone has. If you find it hard to locate or obtain this information, seek out other sources.

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