After decades of unregulated existence in all 50 states, the booming field of personal trainers is braced for a wave of scrutiny that is expected to transform the industry and could make or break some of the biggest fitness companies in the country.
The new regulations, being written by and for the nation’s capital city, will create a registry of all personal trainers in the District only. But they are expected to become a model that winners and losers in the fight believe will be replicated elsewhere.
The credit — or blame — for the newfound urgency can be traced in part to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act. A variety of workplace wellness programs and preventive health-care initiatives called for in the law could soon translate into rivers of billable hours for those with credentials to keep American waistlines in check.
And that means the race is on to be eligible for those credentials, which could eventually lead to the ability to bill insurance companies for services, much like such professionals as dieticians and physical therapists. With billions of dollars potentially at stake, lawyers and lobbyists are engaged in a no-holds-barred fight to shape the nation’s first-ever rules over who has the right to tell someone else how to exercise.
The problem for personal trainers is that no standards currently exist. Instead, dozens of competing descriptions have been written by gym owners, for-profit training companies and self-proclaimed fitness experts. There are even competing organizations that certify competing tests.
Grappling with all of that, an obscure group of D.C. regulators — the Board of Physical Therapy — is preparing to release rules that could send a shock wave through the American fitness industry. Fearing the outcome, some of the loudest voices in the field have decided to go on the offensive. They are calling the process into question and urging city lawmakers to pull back or even halt the effort with threats of drawn-out legal battles.
Some exercise specialists who work most closely with medical groups say the D.C. physical therapy board has an inherent conflict of interest and is trying to restrict professionals with whom their own industry is in direct competition. They point to draft language that could be construed as cutting out personal trainers from potentially billable future work.
And it gets worse, says CrossFit, which offers a brand of high-intensity workouts and asserts that it is the nation’s largest chain of fitness facilities. The District, according to the company, has allowed itself to become a pawn in a bitter industry fight over which personal trainer certification will have the muscle of the law behind it. That could enrich some for-profit organizations and cost others dearly. CrossFit, an industry rebel with millions of devotees as well as critics who say its program leads to injury, says it could be hurt the most.
The tab for revamping CrossFit’s training courses could run into the tens of millions of dollars if the company is forced to do so nationwide, says its chief executive.
For consumers in the District — and eventually Massachusetts and other states where registration or licensure is under debate — regulations could cause some gyms to close while owners and trainers obtain suitable certifications. Such state registries or licenses could also pervade preventive health-care programs. If an employer can get more credit for offering a certified lunchtime pilates program than for a calisthenics routine run by a rogue instructor from CrossFit, it could shape offerings that may suit the fitness needs of some consumers more than others.
“This will affect everyone because ‘fitness’ is a nebulous term. That’s why we have so many pathways to achieve it . . . we all respond differently to exercise and we all have different factors in our lives that come into play in trying to attain it,” said Phillip Godfrey, a medical exercise specialist in the District who has tracked the D.C. law for months and has become convinced the final product will be problematic for his livelihood.
“The term ‘personal fitness trainer’ is not true for everyone in the industry,” Godfrey continued. “That’s a known title, but there are kinesiologists, corrective specialists . . . literally hundreds of titles and sub-specialties. Setting one pathway, one test, one methodology to train individuals — that can be problematic. It may work for some and not others.”
Godfrey and others said that if the District wants to regulate the personal fitness industry, it should set up a board of personal trainers and academic experts rather than assigning the task to physical therapists.
Such concerns do not appear to be dissuading D.C. regulators.
Under a bill passed unanimously last year by the D.C. Council and signed into law by the mayor, the District’s Board of Physical Therapy was tasked with writing the new regulations. The board plans to release its rules next month, seek public comment and then publish them as law. And the heat is on: The District is behind in the process ordered in the legislation. By a strict reading of the law, no personal trainer is operating legally in the nation’s capital because the deadline to register has passed.
The uncertainty over the coming rules is weighing heavily on many who make their living in the industry, especially through CrossFit, which has thrived in a heretofore unregulated space.
With a single weekend course, would-be CrossFit instructors can become certified by the company to open a gym, also known as a “box.”
Using that model, CrossFit has more than 13,000 affiliate facilities, with, reportedly, one opening somewhere in the world every two hours.
The largest concentration of CrossFit facilities is in the Washington area, which the American College of Sports Medicine recently dubbed America’s fittest city.
Andrew Killion, a former collegiate boxer at Cornell and a rower at Gonzaga College High School, found an unexpected career with Crossfit — and is sweating out the District’s impending regulations.
Killion was a paralegal quickly growing disillusioned with a prospective career in law when he opened a CrossFit in the District in 2010. He has since moved twice into bigger spaces. He has nearly 400 members and a hall of fame of three clients who have lost more than 100 pounds each.
On a recent afternoon, Killion paced the sprawling floor of his CrossFit gym near Nationals Park, correcting members’ spinal posture during dead lifts. There’s no difference between safety and performance, he said; the correct form will provide both.
“If there is a board declaring what is good, what is bad, who is right and who is wrong, they are effectively assigning what you are liable for and what you’re not liable for from an insurance standpoint . . . and my rates could go through the roof,” Killion said. “But what is in the realm of good training and what is not is very much up for debate.”
One early proposal that the D.C. board discussed but appears to have moved away from would have required personal trainers to have as much as a four-year degree. Killion said that if such a rule were adopted, he almost certainly wouldn’t have abandoned a career in law.
“I would have never been able to start my business, and we wouldn’t have people who have lost 100 pounds if that were the case,” he said.
Layered into the D.C. regulatory fight is a battle between CrossFit and a consortium of established sports medicine organizations that have banded together under the title of the Coalition for Registration of Exercise Professionals.
The coalition has created a national registry of personal trainers to list and verify credentials. It has attracted at least 150,000 trainers — more than half of all those thought to use the title nationwide.
Graham Melstrand, president of the board, has been among the few voicing strong support for the District’s effort.
“First and foremost, the purpose of the law is to enhance consumer protection for the residents of the District of Columbia,” he said. Melstrand said industry estimates show 40 percent of all trainers have no gym affiliation, meaning they are accountable to no one even though they are often in positions of authority with clients.
That was part of the rationale that Senora Simpson, chairwoman of the D.C. board and a physical therapist, cited in pushing for her board to have the power to regulate personal trainers.
“We all have heard anecdotal reports of injuries, sexual misconduct and misrepresentation of titles by persons claiming to be competent in that area,” Simpson testified before a D.C. Council committee. She called the lack of any registration or licensure of personal trainers “a nationwide failure.”
For CrossFit and the coalition, a primary question is which credentialing the board will recognize. The two use different organizations to certify their trainee programs.
Greg Glassman, CrossFit’s chief executive, bristles at that measurement, saying his organization has been validated in other important ways. CrossFit programs have been adopted as in-house workout routines by several military Special Operations forces and police departments, he said.
“This has nothing to do with public safety or public health,” Glassman said of the District’s proposed regulations during a recent trip to lobby city officials not to impede his company.
CrossFit has homed in on statements by Simpson that the board began consulting with members of the coalition about proposed standards more than five years ago. He cast the legislation as a “Hail Mary pass” by those organizations to prevent the loss of customers to CrossFit.
After a meeting between Glassman and a deputy mayor for health, a spokesman for Mayor Muriel E. Bowser, Michael Czin, said in an e-mail statement that the administration is “committed to developing thoughtful regulations that protect residents’ safety and health while creating an environment where businesses thrive.”
“We will continue to work with all stakeholders to develop the rules.”
Melstrand said the issue is bigger than concerns about CrossFit. It’s about finding ways for the profession of personal trainers to mature into more respected health-care roles.
“At the end of the day, all of the fitness organizations are looking for the respect of practitioners,” he said. “As our space is maturing, there have to be greater expectations around the people who are practicing our craft.”