Health Club Certification - What Could It Really Mean ?

Do you think that raising the bar for health clubs by requiring minimum standards could help improve physican referrals and enable us to be seen as a more credible industry in general ? That's my question and its interesting as I travel around the country speaking with leaders in the health club industry that I rarely come across people informed on the subject of a general minimum standard, despite the fact that the most powerful organizations in our business have been wrestling with the matter for years now. (You can read IHRSA's position here).

Getting everyone to agree on standards in any industry is hard and the health club and fitness business is no different. On August 4th of this year, a Joint Committee of industry stakeholders convened by NSF International, again voted down another voluntary certification standards draft for fitness facilities (see the latest draft here). The vote was 9-8 against with 3 committee members abstaining. The first draft was voted down in October of 2009 and the committee responsible for the standards is now working on a new draft; another vote is not scheduled at this time.

Formed in early 2007, the Joint Committee, chaired by Dr. Walter Thompson, has had numerous drafts turned down but rumor is that an agreement on the standards can be reached. I found it interesting to review in detail the Joint Committee's correspondence with many fitness professionals who shared comments (see examples here). Its been over four years now, though, and I wonder "what's taking so long ?"....

The NSF process has brought together representatives of several organizations that don't always agree . These include IHRSA, ACSM, ACE, YMCA of the USA, and the Medical Fitness Association in addition to professionals from the medical, academic and health club professions. For more information, please visit NSF’S Joint Committee on Health and Fitness Facilities webpage.

So what would this mean to fitness facilities in general or the industry as a whole ? In Andrew Cohen's 2009 Athletic Business article, "Third Party Health Club Certification Effort Could Benefit Industry" IHRSA's EVP Of Public Policy, Helen Durkin, was quoted as saying, "A doctor might feel a lot more comfortable sending a pre-diabetic to a certified club than just telling a patient, 'Go to a club...We hope that it's useful to clubs in a lot of ways — if it's done correctly, it really is an opportunity." Is it about quality and trust ? Maybe, but that comes with a price which some facilities won't be able to afford (standard adoption would be voluntary).

I think the idea of standards and a third party certification is a good one conceptually and could further contribute to the bifucartion trends in health clubs I've spoken of before. Dr. Cary Wing, Director of Medical Fitness Business Development at Fitmarc and the former Executive Director of the MFA shared this perspective:

The American College of Sports Medicine’s (ACSM) Health/Fitness Facility Standards and Guidelines, Third Edition, was used as the basis for the NSF Draft Standard 341. If passed, the NSF Standard will be a platform for the entire fitness industry with regard to safe, effective, and relevant programs and services. I look at it as a beginning and a place for everyone to come to agreement to begin to self-regulate our industry.

But are the standards good enough ? Will many health clubs even adopt the standards and seek certification, as the cost and benefits are unknown ? Do we need to raise the bar and set minimum quality standards for facilities ? Tell me, Bryan O'Rourke, what do you think might result if the minimum standards of the NSF for fitness facilities are adopted and will it be good or bad for the health club industry as a whole ?