What Does It Take to Become a Health and Fitness Expert?

The American Council On Exercise helps us dissect what it really means to be a health and fitness 'expert'

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The Internet is sort of a double-edged sword, right?

On one hand, anyone can log on and publish what they have to say.

On the other hand…Well, anyone can log on and publish what they have to say.

One of the downsides of being able to share information so freely, is that some people frame themselves as authoritative figures, even if they have no credentials or qualifications.

Perhaps this is especially true in the field of health, fitness and wellness. In fact, recently, many unqualified yet popular “wellness bloggers” (as they’re often referred to) have been called out for spreading questionable fitness, nutrition and health information.

Take for example this story on The Guardian: Green is the new black: the unstoppable rise of the healthy-eating guru, or the “wellness guru” Belle Gibson who was recently exposed for falsely claiming to have cured her cancer with “nutrition and holistic medicine” (she never even had cancer).

So with so many unqualified “experts” happily blogging away on the World Wide Web, how can you tell who’s actually legit? And, perhaps an even bigger, more important question, what does it really take to become an “expert” on health and fitness?

To get the full story, we turned to our friends at the American Council on Exercise (ACE) for some in-depth answers.

ACE offers several health-related certifications. Through the organization you can become certified as a personal trainer, a group fitness instructor, an advanced health and fitness specialist, and a health coach — just to name a few of the many certification programs they offer.

Specifically, though, we were curious about their health coach certification. What does a health coach do? If you become a health coach, can you call yourself a “health and fitness expert”? These were just a few of the questions we had. So, to get answers, we spoke with Anthony Wall, director of professional education at ACE, Lee Jordan, an ACE certified personal trainer and health coach, and Jessica Matthews, M.S., senior advisor for health and fitness education for ACE, an ACE-certified health coach and master coach, and assistant professor of health and exercise science at Miramar College in San Diego, Calif.

First, we wanted to know, what exactly does a health coach do?

"As health coaches we listen, and guide our clients down a path toward their health goals,” Jordan explained. “We are interested in sustainable outcomes, resulting in real transformation, not just quick fixes. I like to say, ‘change that is not sustainable is just a detour.’ Many of my clients — I specialize in working with people that need to lose 100 pounds or more — have experienced many detours in their quest for freedom and it can be very disheartening.”

Jordan named what he called “the three pillars” of being a health coach: behavior change, nutrition and physical activity.

“The certifications for personal trainers and registered dieticians go deeply in those two very specific and important disciplines, where a health coach is looking at the holistic solution and often is working with, personal trainers, registered dieticians and physicians,” he said.
As Dr. Cedric Bryant, chief science officer at ACE says, ‘Healthcare is the ultimate team sport.’”

To become a health coach, Wall told us, a candidate must be 18 years old, hold a current CPR/AED certification with a “live skills” check and have a National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)-accredited certification or license in a fitness, nutrition, health care or related field; or an associate’s degree or higher from an accredited college in a relevant field; or two years comparable work in the industries listed.

In other words, you can’t just wake up one day and decide to become a health coach without first proving you have some sort of experience in the field.

But after you achieve the health coach certification, then can you finally call yourself a health and fitness expert? Well, that’s up for debate.

“Someone who would like to consider themselves an expert in health and fitness would want to ensure that they had training in program design and also nutritional strategies as well as the behavior change aspect,” Wall said. “An ACE Health Coach has training in each of these disciplines and understands how to effectively employ the necessary tools based on their clients goals.”

On the other hand, though, as Matthews explained, “Being that ‘health and fitness expert’ is not a very clearly understood nor well-defined or agreed upon title, after achieving this certification through ACE, it is fair to say that the individual is now a credentialed health coach who possess the theoretical knowledge and practical skills to empower people to positive, long-term behavioral change.”

So, yes, an ACE health coach, in theory, can effectively help someone reach their health and fitness goals, no matter what those goals may be. Whether or not you want to consider them an “expert” is pretty much up to you.

Ultimately, it doesn’t really matter if a health professional refers to themselves as an expert or guru, but rather the important thing to consider, whether you’re consulting them in real life or online, is their certification.

“Some individuals will state that they are ‘certified,’ but it’s important that people are aware that not all ‘certifications’ are created equal,” Matthews explained. “A quality, reputable professional certification is one which has third-party validation from an independent organization that explicitly accredits certification programs."

"For example, the NCCA, which was originally formed as the National Commission for Health Certifying Agencies with initial funding from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, has reviewed and accredited certifications for most allied healthcare professions, including credentials for registered dietitians, athletic trainers, nurse practitioners, and pharmacists, among many others.”

Ultimately, Matthews helped to sum this all up by sharing her opinion the word “expert.”

“In my opinion, there is not a particular point at which an individual becomes a ‘health and fitness expert,’” she explained. “Rather, I feel an individual becomes more knowledgeable about and skilled in the field of health and fitness through a combination of factors:

1. Formal high-quality education and credentialing.

2. Extensive, intensive and on-going training and continuing education in their respective area(s) of interest (the on-going piece of this is key, as the science related to health and fitness is constantly evolving).

3. Many years of experience practically applying the theoretical knowledge and practical skills.

4. By possessing a genuine passion for and in-depth understanding of people and a true desire to empower them to live happier, healthier, fitter, more fulfilling lives.”

Honestly, we couldn’t have said it better ourselves.

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