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Government Finds a New Business to Regulate: Personal Trainers

Several places, including the nation's fittest city, want to regulate personal trainers. Is the new push about safety or boosting public revenue?

When Washington, D.C.’s city council proposed -- and then subsequently passed -- a 5.75 percent tax on gym memberships and yoga classes last year, the city's gym owners weren't happy about it. Nicknamed the "yoga tax"' the regulation prompted protests; people did yoga and other exercises around government buildings to indicate their dissapproval. Still, the tax -- which also encompasses tanning salons, car washes, bowling alleys, water delivery services, storage lockers and carpet cleaning -- passed the city council last June.

Now there's another proposal aimed at the city's gyms: regulating personal trainers.


A bill passed in March 2014 mandated that the city devise regulations over the practice of personal fitness trainers, a task delegated to the city’s Board of Physical Therapy. The board is in the final stages of drawing up the proposed regulations, which are expected to be released this month. It’s unclear exactly what the proposed regulations will look like, but critics expect that all trainers will have to register with the city (and pay a fee) before they can practice.


“Everyone knows they’re coming, but it’s tough to have an opinion one way or the other when we don’t know exactly what these regulations are going to contain," said Graham Melstrand, executive vice president of corporate affairs for the American Council on Exercise. "It’s unusual for a municipality to propose such rules, but we have started seeing lifestyle interventions in various other governments."


Florida and Massachusetts are among the other governments that drew up regulations on personal training last year. Both have proposed statewide standards that a personal trainer must meet, as well as education requirements. While Florida’s bill died in committee, Massachusetts’ is still pending. The U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals criticized both as inefficient, and Melstrand said the standards for education are especially strange.


“There are so many different paths you can take when you pursue exercise science. You can stick with dietetics and occupational therapy, which require four-year degrees. Different aspects of fitness require different certifications, depending on what you want to concentrate on. For Florida’s bill, they wanted to create a state-developed exam for all fitness instructors, and those are the kinds of policy issues that concern us,” he said.


The emergence of regulating exercise could be attributed to an increased awareness of personal fitness. The Affordable Care Act offers incentives to employers offering “wellness workplace programs” to encourage employees to be healthier. Gallup reported in July that 55.5 percent of Americans get at least 30 minutes of physical activity three times a week, an all-time high since it started tracking the information in 2008. Combined with Americans' gradual shift toward eating better, working out has become normal for urban professionals.  


“As fitness moves from something a relatively small number of people participated in to a nationwide expectation, policymakers recognize that there needs to be standards across the board,” Melstrand said.


Currently, there is no national standard for personal trainers.


For the D.C. city government, the decision to propose these exercise regulations comes "down to a safety issue," said Tiffany Browne, director of communications for Yvette Alexander, chair of the Committee on Health and Human Services. "We've had concerns from city residents that their personal trainer did not have an adequate amount of formal training. One person in particular came to us expressing concern after a personal trainer didn't know how to train around an injury they had.


"We want our personal trainers to know exactly what they're doing," she said.

During the past several months the board has "solicited public input from multiple interested individuals including representatives from the exercise industry associations, educators, other professionals as well as the general public," said Marcus Williams, director of communications and community relations at the D.C. Department of Health.

VIDA Fitness, a D.C-based gym chain, has been a part of the conversation with the city government and thinks that the regulation has little to do with health or safety of Washingtonians.

“D.C. was voted the fittest city in the nation for the second year in a row, and the city just realizes how much revenue they can generate by regulating this,” said Isiah Munoz, personal trainer manager at VIDA Fitness.


“We learned our lesson last year with the yoga tax. The city has been trying to regulate things within the health industry within the past year, so we’ve been really proactive about having conversations with city officials on how things might impact us and our members,” Munoz said. 


Yes, the board may have "solicited public input from multiple interested individuals," but it doesn’t have a single personal trainer on it, Munoz pointed out.


While Melstrand understands the desire for governments to regulate personal trainers, he wants them to appreciate the system that's already in place.


We want “policymakers to propose rules that will create opportunity for exercise professionals while still protecting consumers,” Melstrand said.

Mattie covers all things health for Governing.

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