Everything is working out well for exercise programs Field provides thousands of instructor jobs.

February 24, 1992|By Carol Kleiman | Carol Kleiman,Chicago Tribune

The aerobics craze started two decades ago with energetic exercises done to music, and while it's slowed down somewhat, jobs for fitness trainers haven't missed a beat.

Aerobics and other exercise programs are big business in health clubs, colleges, universities, dance studios, community centers and park districts.

Workout centers provide thousands of jobs for fitness instructors with credentials that range from on-the-job experience and associate degrees from community colleges to four-year diplomas capped with master's and doctorate degrees.

Starting salaries range from minimum wage to $35,000 for trainers with management responsibility.

In 1988, there were an estimated 100,000 fitness trainers, a field that also includes personal trainers who work one-to-one at health clubs and in private homes with clients -- and travel with celebrities.

The federal "Directory of Occupational Titles" states that fitness trainers work in private health clubs or gymnasiums. But a new employer is corporations. In an effort to reduce mounting health costs and to increase productivity, U.S. businesses are hiring fitness trainers to work with employees.

"There are some 12,000 companies with fitness programs, and business doesn't offer them out of the goodness of their hearts but because the bottom line is that health care costs for employees have skyrocketed," said Marilynn Preston, co-author of "Dr. Jock," a nationally syndicated fitness column. "Corporate fitness trainers will continue to be a growth industry because business has no choice but to invest in their employees' good health."

Growth in membership in the Association for Fitness in Business Inc. in Indianapolis reflects the trend. Founded in 1974 with 25 people involved in corporate health and fitness programs, the group today has 3,282 members, says Leann R. Bacon, membership marketing coordinator.

"Our individual members represent 2,800 corporations," said Ms. Bacon, among them Apple Computer, Aetna Life & Casualty, AT&T, Baxter International, Cigna, Dow Chemical, Ford Motor Co. and Tenneco.

"I see a lot of new companies starting health programs -- of which fitness is only one part -- and others expanding them," said Richard Watson, manager of corporate fitness at Hartford, Conn.-based Aetna.

"The majority of Fortune 500 companies are incorporating them into their strategies. Fitness jobs at corporations are highly sought after and competitive. Requirements are four-year degrees or more and good leadership, communications and interpersonal skills."

Mr. Watson runs Aetna's seven Hartford fitness centers serving 6,000 employee-members. His staff of 35 is made up of graduates of four-year college programs in exercise physiology; half of them have master's degrees. They also are certified in aerobics and have previous experience. Starting salaries are $23,000.

Mr. Watson's own credentials are impressive. He has a bachelor's degree in physical education from Springfield College in Massachusetts, and master's and doctorate degrees in exercise physiology, physical education and administration from Syracuse University. He has worked in fitness at corporations since 1981.

Because corporations are concerned about liability in case of injury, the need for comprehensive standards for fitness trainers is growing.

There is no federal or state licensing of fitness instructors, but certification is offered by such professional associations as the American College of Sports Medicine.

The college's national certification programs for health and fitness professionals range from exercise leader to program director and include written and practical examinations.

"In the early days, a lot of people learned about fitness training by the seat of their pants -- and there wasn't that much to know," said Brian J. Sharkey, wellness director at the University of Montana in Missoula and president of the American College of Sports Medicine. "Now, certification is growing because it requires more expertise and employers request it."

Mr. Sharkey, who has a doctorate in exercise physiology from the University of Maryland, has been in the field 25 years and also works part-time for the U.S. Forest Service, developing fitness programs.

"For fitness trainers not to be accredited is like having a swimming pool without a guard certified by the Red Cross -- but we're not there yet," Mr. Sharkey said.

Elgin (Ill.) Community College offers a 14-week course to prepare trainers for certification. The courses, given two nights a week, run 56 hours and include studies of the cardiovascular system, designing fitness programs, professional responsibility, choreography and stress management.

"There's a bill before the Illinois state legislature requiring certification to work in fitness programs, and we want to get instructors ready for it," said Fern Braam, a 1983 graduate of Elgin's fitness instruction program and now its fitness director. She and Donna Heavey teach Elgin's certification prep course.

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