The truth about fitness certifications

Nov 24, 2010 at 2:31 p.m. ET

Anyone can call themselves a personal trainer. While there are some legitimate credentials, no current licensing exists to separate qualified trainers from those who simply decide to tout themselves as fitness professionals. Recent hoopla over celebrity trainers has raised interest in the qualifications of trainers who appear in reality shows like The Biggest Loser, but how do you know a trainer is truly qualified or simply has a savvy publicist? Good question.

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Fitness certifications: The good, the bad and the ugly

Fitness certifications run the gamut of requirements. Many online companies offer fitness certifications but are not much more than "diploma mills" handing out certifications to anyone willing to fork over cash. These easily achieved fitness certs do not garner respect among legitimate fitness centers and organizations.

Solid national certifications include, for example, those from the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), the American Council on Exercise (ACE) and the National Sports and Conditioning Association (NSCA), which provides a Certified Strength and Conditioning Association (CSCS) sports-oriented certification. The latter requires the trainer to possess at least a four-year college degree and is one of the toughest in the industry.

Ideally, a trainer should possess a combination of a national fitness certification, a related degree and experience. If you want to lose weight, for instance, look for a trainer who not only has a degree and certification but also experience helping clients lose weight. Does the trainer's approach make sense to you? A legitimate trainer will take a moderate approach to weight-loss strategies. Any personal trainers touting their own line of supplements or extreme methods of weight loss may not have your best interests in mind.

How to find a qualified certified personal trainer

As with any profession, both good and bad trainers exist even within a certification, says Fabio Comana, MS, exercise physiologist with the American Council on Exercise (ACE). "Even if a trainer has the credentials, he or she may not have the coaching experience to teach you about technique and movement," the fitness professional says. "They must be able to apply their knowledge."

In addition, a recent survey found that 45 percent of fitness professionals who claim to be certified aren't. IDEA Health & Fitness Association recently launched IDEA Fitness Connnect , the first and only free database of certified fitness professionals. The listings show the trainer's specialties and info, along with certifications, and show those who are "verified" as well as those with expired credentials.

"We know consumers understand the importance of exercise, especially with the recent increase in media attention on health and fitness, but finding a qualified fitness professional is a huge challenge for them," says Peter Davis, CEO and co-founder of IDEA. "Without a standard set of guidelines to consider, a consumer searching for a personal trainer may [find] insufficient or outdated information. Through IDEA Fitness Connect, consumers searching for a professional can be confident they have found a suitable and certified fitness expert."

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