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Accreditation, Standardization and Industry Respectability

Accreditation of facilities can bring respect, and revenue, to fitness centers and the industry as a whole.

The industry continues to strive to gain public acceptance of its essential role in the healthcare continuum and its ability to provide a safe and positive experience for consumers seeking to enhance their level of health and fitness. During the past 25 years, several organizations, most notably IRSA (an organization which changed its name to IHRSA in the mid-nineties) and ACSM have attempted to bring greater responsibility and credibility to the industry, through the development and promulgation of industry standards and guidelines. Over the years, those standards have undergone a variety of changes, yet one theme has remained constant: a framework that reconfirms to consumers that fitness centers conduct themselves in a professionally ethical manner, and offer consumers a reasonably safe exercise experience.

In 1992, ACSM introduced its first set of industry standards, entitled ACSM's Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines, intended to provide club owners with clear expectations for what constitutes a safe exercise environment for the consumer. Somewhat surprisingly, this first publication was met with substantial opposition, primarily because it imposed a plethora of standards that were perceived by the industry, as a whole, to be unattainable and unacceptable. Five years later, a second - significantly different - version of this book was published, and unlike the previous edition, it was generally accepted by the industry. In September of 2006, yet a third edition of ACSM's Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines was released, which represents a considerable evolution over the first two editions and provides the industry with a detailed set of sensible standards and guidelines for operating a safe and effective exercise facility.

Interestingly enough, in just the past 18 months, the Medical Fitness Association (MFA) has developed and released its own standards for the safe operation of a medically based health/fitness center. At the present time, MFA's standards are also being promoted to non-medically based fitness operators.

These standards and guidelines have had two key goals in mind. The first objective is to provide fitness facility operators with a clear set of expectations for what the industry views as best practices for operating a safe and suitable fitness facility. The second goal is to establish a performance, credibility and respectability baseline for insurers, healthcare institutions and, most importantly, consumers. In all likelihood, if both of these goals are realized, the fitness industry will undergo a second burst of growth, even greater than what occurred in the past decade.

Accreditation of facilities: The next step

The ongoing process of standardization sets the stage for the next step: the accreditation of facilities. Similar to what is seen with educational and healthcare institutions, the accreditation process for fitness facilities will use existing industry-related standards and guidelines to establish a framework for awarding a "seal of credibility." Such an accreditation process will be designed to help provide a "benchmark" of respectability and authenticity in the mind of the target audience for the products and services offered by the industry. Accrediting a fitness center will not only help ensure that a particular facility operates in an ethical manner that safely and appropriately addresses the health/fitness needs of the consumer, but also reinforces that reality to interested parties (e.g., government, insurance companies, healthcare organizations, consumers).

It should be noted that national groups in England, Ireland and Switzerland have already developed and delivered health/fitness facility accreditation models. Although somewhat late in the game, a strong movement is currently underway to establish a similar accreditation program in the fitness industry in the United States in the near future. If such an effort is to succeed, fitness center operators in the U.S. have to address several issues regarding accreditation, including whether they are ready for an accreditation process, and whether they are prepared to support it. At some relatively early point in the process, the standards and guidelines that will serve as the foundation for the accreditation process must be identified. Furthermore, a third-party organization that can facilitate the process without an existing or perceived conflict of interest must be determined.

Since accreditation appears to be on the horizon, professionals in the fitness industry should consider how they can help make the process a productive and positive one. Certainly, respected organizations in the industry will play a meaningful role in representing the interests of their constituents in the evolutionary process. In reality, the fitness facility industry should neither expect nor settle for less than the best efforts of everyone involved in this endeavor.

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