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Professional Certification: Hard to Live With It and Can't Live Without It!

Paternostro Bayles, Madeline Ph.D., FACSM

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doi: 10.1249/FIT.0b013e3181f871b2
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You will have many decisions to make regarding your professional career. One decision all exercise professionals will face is whether to obtain a professional certification. This decision often is not made any easier by everything you hear about obtaining a certification; you have a B.S. degree, so do you really need to be certified? Your employer wants you to have a certification but won't necessarily pay for it. In addition, there are so many different certifications that you are not sure which one to pursue. What type of expenses are involved? How do you decide which one to take, and how easy is it going to be to maintain your certification?

Certification for any profession adds credibility by setting some minimal level of academic knowledge and associated skills. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) is the oldest and most scientific organization providing certifications for health and fitness professionals. In addition, it is the only professional organization that certifies clinical exercise professionals, ACSM Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist® and ACSM Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist®. All of ACSM's certifications were developed and are periodically updated by currently practicing professionals. The certification developed by these groups directly reflects what exercise professionals do on a day-to-day basis. Although those individuals graduating with a B.S. or M.S. degree think that an academic degree is enough, certification enhances the educational experience and demonstrates that a minimal level of professional competence has been attained.

Although there is no guidebook to tell you which professional certification to take, there are some general rules governing the development and maintenance of all professional certifications. First, you can look for organizations such as the Institute for Credentialing Excellence, formerly the National Organization for Competency Assurance, which actually oversees and accredits professional certifications. Currently, the ICE accredits 10 different health and fitness certifications. That means each of these certifications meets minimal standards in terms of how the examination is developed by a group of currently practicing professionals, the number of questions on the certification examination, and the content areas on the examination. Professional certifications governed by accreditation organizations also must publish the content areas covered in the examination, and the weight of each content area in terms of percentage. All information about the professional certification must be easily accessible and published in the public domain. Professional certifications should have some minimum eligibility criteria in terms of education and/or practical skill and not be just material covered in a weekend class. Organizations should not guarantee that you will pass an examination if you take their class or buy their books and materials. These are just a few of many safeguards put into place to ensure that the examinations meet at least minimal standards associated with certification criteria.

More and more employers are requiring fitness professionals to obtain and maintain some type of certification. Many large commercial (24-Hour Fitness) and public (the YMCA) fitness clubs require their personnel to be certified. Having a certification may actually become a bargaining point during an interview with a potential employer. Some employers are even willing to cover the costs associated with maintaining your certification. Pending regulations of health and fitness and clinical exercise professionals in various states across the nation will involve minimum levels of education and certification. Although obtaining certification may be a concern for some fitness professionals, maintaining a certification through periodic renewals remains a confusing task for others. It may make sense to select an organization that offers a variety of professional certifications to provide options as your career evolves.


Historically, ACSM certifications are renewed every 3 years, and currently, 65% to 70% of professionals renew. This is fairly consistent with other health and fitness certifications. Although there are currently more than 20,000 ACSM-certified professionals worldwide, with renewal rates at their present levels, the actual numbers of ACSM-certified professionals will not increase on an annual basis. From an organizational standpoint, it is always much tougher to keep a certified member than to certify a professional for the first time. What does this all mean for you? The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics collects information on lifetime job changes, and although this information is difficult to quantify, it does suggest that the average person between the ages of 18 and 38 years changes jobs approximately 10 times (1).

What is apparent for most people is that the path to a successful career is NOT a straight line, but is, in fact, quite winding. You may find that as your career shifts around and changes, that you also might want to obtain more than one professional certification, for example, as you move from personal training (ACSM Certified Personal TrainerSM) to a more medically supervised setting to work with a specific population (ACSM/ACS-certified cancer exercise trainer). Maintaining your certification as your career evolves now becomes increasingly important.

Accomplishing that may not be as difficult as you think. For those certified through ACSM, you are required to attain continuing education credits (CECs) for only one certification, even if you have obtained multiple certifications. For example, a professional with an ACSM Certified Personal TrainerSM, ACSM Certified Health Fitness Specialist (HFS), and ACSM/ACS Certified Cancer Exercise Trainer (CET) is required to achieve only 60 CECs every 3 years. These 60 credits represent the necessary credits for his or her highest level of certification.

There are numerous ways to earn CECs. This includes 24 credits per year available through mailing in continuing education self-tests and associated questions from ACSM's Health & Fitness Journal®. Attendance at conferences (local, regional, and national), as well as 1-day continuing education programs sponsored by ACSM or a variety of other health and fitness organizations, is another way to accumulate CECs. Internet-based continuing education programs such as webinars are an excellent way to obtain credits at home or work. Webinars use live voice narration, as well as providing an opportunity for questions and answers. Information is archived for participants to access for a period of time after the webinar. There are nearly 100 individual webinars covering a wide variety of topics, as well as preparation material for the core ACSM certifications and specialty certifications. Several more webinars are planned for the near future including a series on resistance training for specialty populations and a series of webinars to prepare for the ACSM group exercise instructor and registered clinical exercise physiologist certification examinations. These programs can be used as continuing education or to prepare for one of the ACSM certification examinations. For more information, please visit

A recognized reputable certification in the health and fitness profession is becoming increasingly important and in the very near future may be a requirement in a more regulated employment market. ACSM certifications are widely recognized throughout the industry as the most comprehensive and credible. A variety of certifications are available and can add to your career even if it changes over time. Get certified and maintain your certification throughout your career; it can be as easy as the click of a mouse.


1. U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics. National Longitudinal Survey of Youth 1979 [Internet] [cited 2010 July 9]. Available from:
© 2010 American College of Sports Medicine.