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Why Professional Certification Matters

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Certification

Francis Neric, the ACSM national director of certification, shares why professional certification matters.

I’ve been asked countless of times by friends and students from around the country — “what certification should I get” or “who should I hire?” My answer is always the same — “it depends.”

Certifications, or as I like to refer to them, professional certifications have a specific purpose. First and foremost, professional certifications are used for public protection. Full stop. Certifications are supposed to determine if a person is minimally competent. Certifications don’t teach anything — they only assess if a person has the appropriate level of knowledge and skill to perform a job safely, effectively and ethically.

But it isn’t that simple, is it?



Role of Accreditation and Professional Registration

Not all certifications in the fitness industry meet the expectations of occupational credentialing. Certification agencies should at a minimum be accredited by the National Commission of Certifying Agencies (NCCA) or ANSI ISO-17024. Accredited certification programs must, among others, provide evidence in how the organization meets expected credentialing standards, how it supports certificants from application through lifelong learning, and the specific steps taken to protect its stakeholders and the public. 

A good way to check if employees or potential hires are appropriately certified is to verify credentials through a professional registry. A professional registry positively verifies a person’s certification. In other words, the certification agency itself provides current certificate information — name, certification number, expiration date, location of practice — onto a public registry. Some directories allow the fitness professional to attest to being certified and/or their level of education, and it is therefore up to the customer to assume the risk that the person is suitable to meet their needs/ability. An example of a professional registry is the U.S. Registry of Exercise Professionals. This is a free service that employers can use to verify certifications.

Intersection of Education and Certification

As we all know, clients can range from a healthy person who is looking for a structured individualized fitness program to a person exercising with an unstable disease or condition to an athlete trying to meet peak performance in a highly structured, periodized conditioning program. So, selecting the right exercise professional depends on the clients that you serve or plan to serve in the future.

Often the most qualified exercise professionals have a combination of professional certification, formalized education, and relevant experience. The purpose of the formalized education is to provide students a scientific foundation so they understand how the body changes with exercise and the factors that must be considered like health risks and/or fitness goals. Internships then allow students to apply what learned in the classroom directly into profession practice, all while in a controlled learning environment. Some organizations recognize the need to create certifications at different education and experience levels to meet the expected demands of the workforce such as certified group exercise instructor, certified personal trainer, certified exercise physiologist and certified clinical exercise physiologist.

Putting it all Together

All of that brings me back to the original question — “which certification should one get” or “what certification should you look for when hiring an exercise professional?” At a minimum, look for certifications from agencies accredited by either NCCA or ANSI ISO-17024 to minimize your legal liability. If you are looking to differentiate or your grow your business, look for folks who also have a degree in exercise science and relevant internship experience. Lastly, look at certification agencies that offer support resources to their certificants that allow them to continue to grow throughout their professional career.

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Francis Neric

Francis Neric, MS, MBA is the ACSM national director of certification.

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