PERSPECTIVE: Summer 2016

The CEO of Fitness Australia asks, should fitness professionals be able to provide nutritional advice to clients?

Let me invite you to check in for a moment on the amazing fitness landscape that we’ve all contributed to creating over the past twenty years or so.

Participation in structured exercise has grown from around 9 per cent in the mid-nineties to around 16 per cent today, effectively almost doubling in twenty years. And all the projections are telling us that it will continue to grow at around 6 per cent per year up to 2020, clearly the driver in Quadrant’s recent acquisition of Fitness First Australia, Jetts and Goodlife.

This level of investment, and the confidence in the fitness industry that it demonstrates, should reassure all of us, particularly when investors are having to look far and wide for growth opportunity.

We have done an amazing job of commoditising fitness. A large section of the population are either current or lapsed gym goers or well versed in structured exercise. This commoditised landscape has allowed for the growth of 24/7 franchises that now form the majority of new gym offerings. The 24/7 clubs could never have existed twenty years ago when there weren’t enough people with adequate gym experience to walk into a facility and be sufficiently conversant with the equipment to exercise safely, nor to represent a commercially viable target market.

Yet as a community we are fatter and bracing ourselves for the ‘tsunami’ of diabetes and other chronic illnesses that face us due to poor exercise, nutrition and lifestyle choices. Have we really had so little impact on the health of Australians, despite our meteoric growth in fitness services? With more trainers, more facilities and more awareness than ever before, are we just getting fit people fitter?

The quality of our offerings, with 25,000 trainers registered at Fitness Australia, all of whom are required to keep up with their continuing education, is higher than ever before. There are more facilities with more available opening hours across more fitness modalities, yet the ultimate goal of a measurable positive impact on the overall health of the community continues to elude us.

The other piece of the public health puzzle is nutrition, and while the nutrition message is getting through, there is still a lack of understanding in the community and a growing plethora of poor food choices available. There is a reasonable argument that the delivery of nutrition advice by trainers to their clients could contribute to correcting this situation. Currently, Cert IV level qualification constrains trainers to providing generic advice based on the Australian Dietary Guidelines, which in itself is entirely reasonable.

However, as most people walk into a gym looking for body composition change, there is an expectation from the community that trainers should be able to offer more qualified advice, that a more tailored approach should be part of the package. This is partly due to trainers having historically offered quite prescriptive nutrition advice, even though doing so is outside the scope of practice as described in the Fitness Industry National Training Package.

Clearly something has to change, if for no other reason than the wider issue of insurance, whereby Professional Indemnity Insurance isn’t going to cover someone who gives advice that they aren’t qualified to give.

So here’s the challenge – do we lift the quality of the nutritional advice offering to meet the market by upskilling our trainers, or do we continue with the laissez-faire and try to bring trainers working outside the scope (i.e. most of them) to heel? In a climate of continuing improvement in the skills of our trainers and enhanced outcomes for their clients, the former presents an attractive proposition.

Further, trainers are in the unique position of seeing their clients frequently, sometimes two or three times a week . This enables them to have a finger firmly on the pulse not only of what their clients are eating, but also of their headspace, and to give support accordingly, support that may well include referring them to an allied health practitioner. This talks to the lifestyle change that is necessary for lasting healthy eating and exercise practices.

Currently most trainers are delivering nutrition advice outside of the National Training Package scope of practice and there is inherent risk in this situation. We need to rise to this challenge, and quickly.

Bill Moore is CEO of Fitness Australia, the peak national fitness body. A key figure in the development of the Australian fitness industry, he has owned numerous health clubs and co-created the Michelle Bridges brand.