The History of the National Board of Fitness Examiners

NBFE Announces CRITICAL Survey
NBFE Annual Report

The Growth of the Fitness Professional Industry


In response to decades of scientific data demonstrating the benefits of balanced nutrition and regular exercise for the universal and targeted prevention of many chronic diseases, the fitness industry has experienced tremendous growth in a variety of ways. The abundance of home gym and fitness equipment has exploded. Exercise video and nutritional supplement sales have skyrocketed. Perhaps the most dominant source of growth in the multi-billion dollar fitness industry has been the use of personal trainers in health clubs and in private studios. Since 1998, the number of Americans belonging to health clubs has grown over 23 percent or seven million members according to reports. The American Sports Data, Inc., a company that specializes in sports and fitness research since 1983, projected that 4,021,000 people in the United States alone paid for personal training services in 1998, and that number has significantly increased each year.

That being said, personal trainers today must assume a higher level of responsibility for their clients. Personal trainers must ensure that clients receive the appropriate care and required supervision as they pursue their individual fitness goals. Liability rests on fitness professionals, as they are directly responsible for the safety, health, and wellbeing of their clients.

According to the new National Strength and Conditioning Association text, Essentials of Personal Training (2004) John Dietrich, past president of the American International Health Industries, stated as far back as 1983: “There are no licensure requirements or mandated training programs for health club fitness instructors (as well as personal trainers), yet who can deny the grave responsibility of an individual whose job it is to assist people in vigorous exercise and the use of powerful machines?” Twenty-one years later, the problem still exists.

The NSCA went on to conclude that “When personal trainers become thoroughly prepared and truly committed to providing the most effective exercise programs and the safest training environments, then this vocational pursuit will deserve the recognition of an allied health care profession.”

The Problem: The Need for Standardization and Certification at both the Program and Individual Level

In response to an array of lawsuits resulting from client injury and, more frighteningly, death, the fitness industry began scrutinizing the personal fitness profession. Lawsuits have been brought against personal trainers and health clubs alike. In 2003, Dan Rather's nationally broadcast story "Who's Training The Trainers," sparked a media frenzy that included dozens of nationally syndicated articles written about the lack of regulations and standards in the fitness industry. Until recently, the industry did a fair job "self-regulating" however, the unfortunate reality is that today, $39.95 “Personal Trainer Certificates” are available online. Reportedly there are over 200 fitness certification companies offering education or “personal trainer certifications.” Unqualified programs compromise the integrity of the industry, creating problems for qualified personal trainers, health clubs, the public, and insurance companies.

Recently, several certification organizations have examined external program accreditation as a means to address these issues. The International Health & Racquet Sport Association (IHRSA) has led some of these efforts to help improve the capacity for "self regulation.” Program accreditation by a third party is a good step to ensure that certification organizations’ educational standards meet an accepted level of delivery. However, it is also imperative that an external, unbiased, nationally recognized, standards- based examination process exist to ensure that all fitness professionals meet certain levels of competency determined by their scope of practice.

World-renowned exercise scientists, practicing fitness professionals, and certification organization heads have stated in recent polls that they believe our industry is best served by individual competency evaluations conducted by a national board with an eye toward eventual state licensing. This model has been successfully used by Medicine since 1915, when the National Board of Medical Examiners (NBME) was formed. Today, National Board Exams are the benchmark for individual competency evaluation by virtually all medical and allied health care providers.

The Solution: The Creation of the NBFE

The National Board of Fitness Examiners (NBFE) is a not-for-profit organization that will consist of 18 to 22 members. The NBFE was founded to fulfill two distinct needs as well as address a series of ancillary requirements. First, the NBFE will address and define a series of prescribed “scopes of practice” for fitness professionals. These definitions will likely include entry-level floor instructors, group exercise instructors, general personal trainers, specialists in areas such as youth and senior fitness, and medical exercise specialists. This paradigm is common in other allied health professions including nursing, which has defined the roles for nurses assistants, licensed vocational nurses, registered nurses, surgical nurses, and nurse practitioners.

The second need that the NBFE will address is determining the “standards of practice” for each of these roles and assessing fitness professionals based on those standards. The standards will be articulated as formal statements of skills and knowledge that are associated with specific roles in the fitness industry. From these standards, the Board will generate examinations deployed in a high-stakes testing environment in partnership with a leading international testing organization.

While these assessment processes are a critical method to ensure public safety and improve our industry, we are also sensitive to the need for health clubs to keep their costs down and hire individuals with little to no experience; their needs will be addressed. At the same time, we recognize the need for highly qualified “medical exercise” specialists that can work with post-rehabilitation patients. To receive acceptance from traditional medicine, there must be clear differentiation between the levels of fitness professionals. Today the title "personal trainer" does not denote any particular level of competency. The NBFE plans to work directly with all states and assist with licensing for fitness professionals as well as promote the state-licensing model nationwide. The NBFE has already begun conversations with several individual states to accept the results of the board as sufficient evidence that these individuals have met a standardized, nationally-approved level of competency.

The NBFE is urging that fitness professionals who have passed the national boards should be eligible for state licensing without the need for further examination. Should any state mandate licensing, it is likely that they will follow similar protocols used by all medical and allied health care professions, i.e., utilizing individual competency assessment by a national board prior to state examinations.

Certainly, lobbying for insurance reimbursement is also a critical part of the NBFE plan because of the cost savings benefits of having healthier clients. Furthermore, personal trainer liability insurance companies recognize that qualified fitness professionals are less of a risk than non-qualified individuals. The NBFE will also tirelessly lobby primary care physicians and chiropractors and the organizations that oversee them to begin writing prescriptions for exercise. This will not only improve public health, but over the next five to ten years it will stimulate tremendous growth for all health clubs and fitness professionals.

The Structure of the NBFE The NBFE will draw support from five advisory committees: (1) medicine, (2) certification organizations, (3) fitness professionals, (4) health clubs, and (5) the military. Each of these boards will provide recommendations and counsel to the NBFE in their specific areas of expertise. The Executive Board also provides appointees to the NBFE to support areas not in the scope of the Advisory Committees, e.g., legal affairs, business, testing and psychometrics, etc. The NBFE will provide exam preparation materials directly to testing candidates and certification organizations. In the future, this content will be derived from old tests and topic lists rather than current curricular content, once again, modeling medicine.


As the NBFE has taken shape, there has been overwhelming support from the medical community, the insurance industry, fitness professionals, club owners, certification organizations, the public, the media, the military, and the government. The NBFE anticipates that the first examinations can take place in the first quarter of 2005. As part of the rollout, NBFE will work closely with certification organizations, as both the NBFE Advisory Committee members and as discrete entities, so that the personal trainers currently working in the industry today will be prepared for the examination in a realistic time frame.

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