Professional Ethics :The choices we make will determine the success of our industry

How often have you heard the word ethics used in relation to business? Whether the term is used to recognize high ethical standards or criticize unethical practices, it’s a concept many businesses are currently discussing.

Any industry thrives if the public decides in favor of the industry’s product. Buying decisions are based on perceptions of the product’s value as well as of the industry as a whole.

The key word is perception. A perceptive person is one who can discern the truth of a particular matter. However, a person’s “perception” of an entity or object does not necessarily have anything to do with truth. Information need not be factual or pertinent to create or change a person’s perception. For example, a common perception is that personal training is a fad for the rich and famous. The fact is that training can be a significant facilitator of wellness.

When an industry (like personal training) is based primarily on service, every word, action and deed of every individual within the industry affects the perception of prospective buyers. If the perception is that the industry is unethical, the industry will not prosper. For example, look at the negative impact on the health club industry of clubs that presold memberships and then folded–or that oversubscribed in the hope members wouldn’t show up. Reliable, service-oriented clubs are still fighting to differentiate themselves from the negative perception created by those clubs.

Obviously, we don’t want that to happen to personal training. However, trainers are in a vulnerable position. We are the “new kids on the block” in the fitness industry, and we are being watched closely. We should be very concerned about how the public perceives us and how other health care professions view our contributions to wellness.

Professional ethics in business-or the standard of right and wrong-might appear to be a rather simple concept. We can generally count on adults’ abilities to differentiate between right and wrong. However, not every decision is black and white. Circumstances commonly occur that place many choices in a “gray” area. In business, the gray area of professional ethics is ever increasing due to the complexities and sensitivities of the marketplace. The advertising industry is well aware of this point as it continues to connect cigarette smoking with a positive lifestyle.

How then do we shelter our profession from the negative connotations that could harm it? From my observation of the industry, I feel that trainers’ behaviors in the following areas will dictate the public’s response to our industry.

Misrepresenting Results

Although misrepresentation is almost commonplace in our society, we don’t have to do it. Don’t you think misrepresentation is simply a watered-down term for fraud? Personal trainers, like people in any business, run the risk of misrepresenting themselves in three major areas: (1) results, (2) knowledge and (3) products.

1. Claims of What We as Personal Fitness Trainers, Can Do for a Client. Slogans on fitness business cards and advertisements often say something like. “Get the body you’ve always wanted.” While pursuing the perfect body is certainly the client’s prerogative, prudent disclosure by the trainer about possible limiting factors, such as genetics, is warranted. “Let me help you reach your optimal potential” would be a more appropriate slogan. Let’s not fall into the ”don’t forget to read the fine print” category of business. Clients who have been fooled by a personal trainer will certainly spread the word about their bad experience.

2. Misrepresentation of Ability and Knowledge. At this point in our profession, anyone who has a business card printed can be a personal trainer. While this mentality is difficult to eliminate, personal ethics should motivate us to further our education. Continually advancing our knowledge through certifications, specialty courses and academic degrees will increase our confidence in what we know and our understanding of what we don’t.

Here’s a case in point. On a television talk show, I saw a panel of “fitness experts” consisting of several trendy and well-publicized trainers and an exercise physiologist, Nicki Rippee, Ph.D. In response to a woman who skated professionally and who asked a question about limiting the size of her thighs, one panelist suggested if the woman stretched more, she could elongate her thigh muscles and reduce their thickness.

Fortunately, Rippee explained to the woman that her ability to develop muscle tissue to that extent was in part hormonal, due to genetics, and was also the very reason she was of the caliber to be a professional skater.

All the commercial success in the world cannot replace correct information. As professionals, we must hold ourselves accountable for what we say if we are to be perceived as credible.

3. Making False Claims About Products. Personal trainers must be careful not to misrepresent products. The “infomercial” mentality is alive and well and certain to continue fooling the public for only $29.95. Endorsing a product by saying it “helps strengthen the abdominal muscles” is long way from stating that the revolutionary gadget will burn fat and reduce inches.

Likewise, selling products available through multilevel marketing may be damaging to a personal trainer’s credibility. The driving force behind this very successful marketing approach is financial reward for the sellers, regardless of the quality of the product. In the health care business, this could be perceived as a conflict of interest. After all, how valuable can the advice of the trainer be when the client can attain the same information from a plumber, an accountant or a cashier at the local grocery store?

IDEA Code of Ethics

As a member in good standing of IDEA, the international association of fitness professionals, I will do my utmost to:

    1. Provide qualified instruction to all participants.

      a. Screen health and exercise history of all participants and establish individual fitness goals. (At least have participants fill out a basic health history form.)
      b. Offer modified exercise options for students with different fitness levels or special needs (i.e., demonstrate low-impact or beginner options).
      c. Incorporate new research in exercise science into programs.
      d. Be knowledgeable in first aid and emergency procedures. (Maintain CPR certification.)
      e. Accurately represent my qualifications and make every effort to recommend other professionals in areas outside my expertise.

    2. Provide a safe exercise environment.

      a. Maintain a clean, well-lit and ventilated facility that meets all governmental regulations and insurance guidelines. (IDEA recommends 34 square feet per participant in fitness classes.)
      b. Maintain all equipment according to manufacturers’ instructions.
      c. Establish emergency systems for all staff.

    3. Stay educated on the latest research and exercise techniques.

      a. Pursue continuing education.
      b. Facilitate continuing education of staff.
      c. Meet the national standards for instructor knowledge.
      d. Obtain specialized training for teaching special populations.

    4. Foster commitment to fitness and health as a life long goal.

      a. Encourage participants to follow regular exercise programs.
      b. Track the progress of participants.
      c. Educate participants about the benefits of exercise and healthful lifestyles.

    5. Show respect for participants and fellow professionals.
    a. Promote the exchange of knowledge and experience with other professionals for the benefit of all participants.
    b. Never publicly discredit or lower the dignity of individuals, organizations or facilities through conduct or comment.
    c. Never discriminate based on race, creed, color, sex, age, physical handicap or nationality.

      6. Promote honesty in all business practices.
      a. Maintain fair pricing.
      b. Do not employ misleading advertising.
      c. Maintain sufficient insurance coverage.
      d. Use clear, simple language in all contracts.
      e. Abide by contracts with clients and other professionals.

    7. Uphold a professional image through conduct and appearance.

      a. Refrain from unhealthy practices, such as smoking and substance abuse.

Behaving Appropriately

Nothing is perceived as more unethical than inappropriate behavior in a professional setting. While the term inappropriate behavior can cover a wide range of problems, two areas are frequently encountered in training situations.

The first area involves the powerful impression we trainers create by how we dress when working with clients. A professional and modest appearance sends the right message. When working with clients, we should change or cover our own workout clothes to show we’ve changed our role in the gym. This message will help clients see that our focus is-as it should be-on them and not ourselves. We can also instill a more positive body image in our clients when we eliminate the comparison issue.

The second area addresses interpersonal relationships. The relationship between trainer and client often travels a healthy course of friendship and mutual respect when both people maintain ethical standards. However, if the relationship becomes too relaxed and professionalism is compromised, the trainer can send mixed signals that make the client feel confused and uneasy and eventually part company with the trainer. We must take steps to instill confidence and respect in our clients at the onset of the working relationship.

We should eliminate all conversation of a sexual nature from our dialogue with clients. A flirtatious comment here and there can be harmless-and is sometimes even returned by the client. However, we have to control the atmosphere and keep this type of banter from escalating. In fact, it’s best not to initiate it in the first place.

While concerns exist regardless of the trainer’s gender, I’d like to take a minute to speak to male trainers who work with female clients.

Many men may not realize the subtle impact of their words and actions. A female client may read messages into a trainer’s comments. These unintentional messages may make the client feel defensive. Her ability to be comfortable may diminish, and she may feel forced to choose her own words more carefully. Ultimately, she may project her negative perception from one trainer to all male trainers. Women are relative newcomers to the strength gym, and we need to be extremely professional to encourage them along their way instead of standing in their way.

Body contact spotting can be another danger zone for personal trainers. Touching the client is at times necessary and even beneficial. Manual resistance, certain spotting techniques and even an occasional therapeutic hug can be safe and appropriate as long as the trainer’s intent does not exceed professional boundaries.

Inappropriate behavior is more often subtle than blatant. A client of the opposite sex may never mention a problem, yet may still be formulating a perception based on how she or he feels about the circumstances.

One question we can ask ourselves before touching or spotting is: “Would I touch a person of the same sex this way?” We should not treat a member of the opposite sex any differently than we would treat a member of our own sex. This type of subtlety tends to lead to trouble.

A relatively new and interesting technique called Systematic T.O.U.C.H. Training (STT) was developed by Beth and Oscar Rothenberg to help stimulate muscular contraction. One of the benefits of the STT course curriculum is that Oscar Rothenberg, an attorney, has done a tremendous job of covering the legal ramifications of body contact between genders.

The personal trainer’s level of integrity must be above reproach-for the perception of the client and of all others in the gym who may be observing the behavior.

Good Ethics Equals Good Business

The goal of the committee that wrote IDEA’s Code of Ethics was to pursue a specific course of objectives while incorporating a degree of latitude for individual differences and discretion. l would like to suggest all personal trainers regularly review the code so we can continue to build our industry on a foundation we can be proud at.

I believe personal fitness trainers are knowledgeable health care professionals who are uniquely qualified to design and implement specific educational exercise programs, one person at a time. Being perceived as such will ensure the advancement of our profession to the status of a bona fide industry-an industry that can truly facilitate health care; an industry that should not be dismissed by the public for being full of hype, insincerity and questionable moral behavior.

Gregory L. Welch. MS, is an exercise physiologist and the president of SpeciFit, An Agency of Wellness, located in Seal Beach, California. He lectures nationally, is on the board of advisors of the Lifespan Wellness Center at California State University at Fullerton and is a member of the faculty of the American Academy of Fitness Professionals. Welch sat on the committee that originally developed IDEA s Code of Ethics.

©1995 by IDEA. All rights reserved Reproduction without permission is strictly prohibited.

IDEA Members:

Please send us your opinion. What are the ethical issues you face in your work? Does IDEA’s Code of Ethics represent all the issues you face? What would you add to or delete from the code?

Attn: Ethics, IDEA Personal Trainer

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Fax: (619) 535-8234

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Written by Gregory L. Welch MS ATC

Explore Wellness in 2021