By Ian Simpson
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - A battle is brewing in Washington as the capital city prepares to regulate personal fitness trainers in a move that could ripple through the country's booming $24 billion gym industry and its fight against flab.
The District of Columbia, whose residents are generally fitter than the rest of the country, is set to adopt the United States' first regulations on trainers, following a law passed by the city council last year. It named an obscure city regulatory panel, the Board of Physical Therapy, to develop rules for trainers who help guide exercise aficionados through their stretching, weightlifting and crunches.
The board is set to vote on the new standards on Sept. 22. After a 30-day period for public comment followed by possible revisions, the rules would take effect.
Backers of regulation say consumers need protection against unqualified trainers and problems that can range from injury to sexual misconduct. Opponents reject the move as government meddling in an innovative business.
The effort "is first in the nation and it's going to set precedent for the industry," said Phillip Godfrey, a medical exercise specialist who has long tracked the District law on trainers.
Opponents also worry that Board of Physical Therapy rules will drive up costs for clients and eat into health club profits.
"Personal training is the biggest profit center in health clubs - hire a kid at $12 an hour and charge $40," said Sal Arria, the president of the National Board of Fitness Examiners, a non-profit which offers its own certification standards for trainers.
Washington would seem to be a perfect place to test fitness rules. Its streets are alive with joggers and people toting rolled-up workout mats and it was rated the fittest U.S. city in May by the American College of Sports Medicine and the Anthem Foundation.
Labor Department figures show there were 241,000 fitness trainers and aerobics instructors in the United States in May 2014. Washington and its Virginia and Maryland suburbs ranked No. 3 among metropolitan areas with 5,850.
INJURIES, SEXUAL MISCONDUCT
Since they have no central certifying body, U.S. trainers can get credentials from dozens of competing organizations, said David Herbert, a Canton, Ohio, lawyer and expert on exercise liability law.
Though regulatory efforts have failed in up to 20 states, Herbert said that the industry had tightened standards in recent decades. The number of agencies issuing credentials has shrunk from as many as 400, he said.
"There's been reports of cats and dogs getting certifications through some kind of system," Herbert said jokingly. "Most of that is gone."
Washington's city council passed a law in 2014 ordering trainers to register with the city. It let the physical therapy panel set the rules that are due to take effect later this year.
Senora Simpson, the therapy board's chairwoman, testified before the council about anecdotal reports of sexual misconduct, injuries and misrepresentation by trainers. They also were often confused with physical therapists, she said.
"Even used car dealers can be reported to someone when the clunker fails," Simpson said.
An early proposal would have mandated that trainers have a four-year degree, but exercise specialist Godfrey said the Board of Physical Therapy seemed to have dropped that.
The question of who can work as a personal fitness trainer has brought a clash over standards. Opponents of a city-created set of rules for trainers include the CrossFit gym company while supporters include a consortium of licensing associations called the Coalition for the Registration of Exercise Professionals.
Graham Melstrand, the CREP's board president, said his group had sought adoption of uniform regulatory standards in 10 states over the last five or six years.
"We want to be present at the table and hope that when these rules are crafted that they become a win-win for the local consumers and for those exercise professionals that would help them out," he said.
CrossFit contends the city's new standards would strip its ability to certify its own trainers.
"You're just looking at a land grab by a few agencies who are really struggling with being competitive," said Nicole Carroll, the company's director of certification.
Opponents of Washington's move point to a White House paper in July that said a quarter of U.S. workers already needed a license to do their jobs. They also say that regulations should be designed by trainers instead of by physical therapists.
The regulations come as the U.S. gym industry is booming, according to the International Health, Racquet and Sportsclub Association, an industry group.
The United States had 34,460 health clubs at mid-year, up 28 percent in a decade, and last year revenues were up 7.4 percent to $24.2 billion, association figures show.
Outside a Mint Health Club and Studio in downtown Washington, Cheryl Arceneaux, a 51-year-old loan officer, said after a workout she favored rules for personal trainers.
"I'd want that," Arcenaux said. "I wouldn't want them injuring you."
(Reporting by Ian Simpson; Editing by Scott Malone and Frances Kerry)