Janice Shannon learned the hard way that not all personal trainers are equal.
A car accident left her with permanent back pain years ago, prompting doctors to advise her to exercise with care. Unfortunately, her trainers weren't listening.
One fitness instructor told her to push through the pain, which ended in a shoulder injury. Others were evidently unsure which exercises were safe. After four years of trial and error, Shannon was leery and had seen no results.
Then she found a qualified trainer.
Shannon's story - which ended in her achieving fitness milestones she never dreamed possible - offers insights for those pondering hiring trainers as the new year nears. In 2000, more than 5 million Americans sought personal training, according to the nonprofit International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association.
"There are no state or national requirements for a fitness 'professional' to be certified," said Brett Pruitt, spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. "Basically, anyone can go out and put up a shingle, so to speak, with no proof required."
Even if a consumer is aware enough to ask for proof of certification, that piece of paper might be relatively worthless.
"There are, at last count, 256 certifying organizations across the country," said Pruitt, who works for one of the largest. Many of the programs are little more than a scam, industry experts warn.
Personal-trainer wannabes can jump onto the Internet, fork out $400 for a textbook and an exam and have a certification in the mail within days.
Some programs that require the student to be on-site aren't much better.
"Class starts at about 8 o'clock in the morning, and by 3 o'clock in the afternoon you are considered a qualified personal trainer," said Robert Raymond of RR Personal Training, Littleton, Colo.
"There is a big difference between being a 'certified' personal trainer and being a 'qualified' personal trainer."
Since Raymond opened his business in 1990, most of his job applicants have fallen far short of his requirements, he said.
While competition is growing fierce, effectively weeding out some bad trainers, the problem still exists, fitness experts say.
"I know that two years ago I met a trainer at a club who was just out of high school," said Jerri Klinker, a personal trainer. "That's scary."
Raymond said he recently saw a trainer in a club instructing a woman to do a really high-step run with 20-pound weights in her hands. "That is really horrible on your joints," he said. "I have seen things like that many times."
The situation is becoming worse as the population ages, creating more clients like 50-year-old Shannon - a baby boomer with injuries.
"The needs of the population are greater," said Anthony Palmieri, a trainer with Med-Well, which focuses on rehabilitation. "We are dealing with a broader base of medical issues."
Trainers should be certified by a nationally recognized organization, such as the American Council on Exercise, the National Academy of Sports Medicine, the American College of Sports Medicine or the National Strength and Conditioning Association, Palmieri said.
For personal training, the latter two groups are highly regarded. Both require college degrees in related fields, something the majority of certification programs do not.
Palmieri feels so strongly about it that two years ago he helped launch the National Fitness Therapy Association to accredit trainers who meet certain standards. Accreditation would serve as a guarantee to doctors, insurers and consumers that trainers have met these requirements, he said.
About 46 trainers and seven facilities have been accredited, which Palmieri acknowledges is a slow start.
"The consumer needs to start pushing that expectation," he said.
Shannon said it's difficult for a layman to know what to expect from a trainer. But once she found Raymond, the difference was profound, she said: "By then, I had been with enough physical-therapy people to know the questions to ask and to know what to look for."
Raymond was clear and confident about the exercises she could and could not do, Shannon said. The biggest difference was that she saw results.
"I lost 30 pounds and have had some pain relief," she said.
Shannon's body-fat level dropped from 37 percent body to 21 percent, Raymond said. And she increased her upper-body strength 207 percent, he said.
If a client has a serious condition or injury, a trainer should consult a physician or at least require a doctor's approval. Many trainers send such clients to physical therapists.
Consumers also should be wary of dietary counseling, said Pruitt, a Boulder personal trainer. Even with a master's degree in physiology, he refers clients to registered dietitians for nutritional advice.
"One of the problems I see is that trainers can make additional income from the sale of nutritional supplements," he said.
Pruitt advises student trainers against such sales, warning that dietary advice can be fodder for lawsuits that a personal trainer isn't likely to win. In one widely publicized case, a New York trainer suggested a diet aid containing the herb ephedra. The client died.
- What is your exercise and educational background? Are you certified by a nationally recognized organization?
- Are you a member of an association or a graduate of a certification organization that requires continuing education?
- Do you require a health screening or a release from my doctor?
- Will you have me focus on attainable goals?
- Are you certified in cardiopulmonary resuscitation and first aid?
- Do you have references?
- Will you keep a record of workouts and progress?
- Do you have a network of doctors, dietitians and physical therapists you can consult?
Source: IDEA, national health and fitness membership organization
On the Web:
American College of Sports Medicine, www.acsm.org
American Council on Exercise, www.acenet.edu
National Strength and Conditioning Association, www.nsca-lift.org
National Academy of Sports Medicine, www.nasm.org