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Things That Get Exercise Professionals into Trouble!

Things That Get Exercise Professionals into Trouble!

             Exercise professionals sometimes find themselves in legal trouble when they attempt to do things they are not qualified or licensed to do. Following the advice of Dr Eickhoff-Shemek can help exercise professionals stay in the gym and out of the courtroom. Take time now to subscribe to her free quarterly newsletter at www.fitnesslawacademy.com.




Exercise Professionals: Distinguishing “Legal” and “Professional” Scope of Practice

By JoAnn M. Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D., FACSM, FAWHP

 To stay within their scope of practice, exercise professionals are often informed to practice within their education, training, and experience. What exactly does this mean and why is it important? This article will answer these questions by describing the differences between the legal scope of practice and professional scope of practice.

Legal scope of practice applies to licensed professionals and can be defined as:

… the activities that an individual…is permitted to perform within a specific profession. Those activities should be based on appropriate education, training, and experience. Scope of practice is established by the practice act of the specific practitioner’s board, and the rules adopted pursuant to that act (1, p. 8).

Many professionals, such as health care providers, lawyers, counselors, dietitians, massage therapists, and barbers, must have a state license to practice. The requirement of licensure is determined by individual states. For example, not all states have a licensure requirement for those who practice dietetics.

The exercise profession is not a licensed profession — it is self-regulated through voluntary accreditation and certification programs. Anyone can practice as an exercise professional. There is only one state (Louisiana) that has licensure for “clinical” exercise physiologists. Legislative bills have been proposed in several states to license exercise professionals such as personal fitness trainers and group exercise leaders. None have become law.

Although the legal scope of practice does not apply to exercise professionals, they do need to adhere to a professional scope of practice. The professional scope of practice is applicable to all professions and vocations that require special knowledge, skills, and training. See the Figure that describes three scenarios in which exercise professionals would be practicing outside their scope. The first two scenarios reflect practicing outside the professional scope of practice and the third scenario reflects crossing over the line into a licensed profession.

Figure:  Scope of Practice Scenarios that Can Lead to Potential Legal Consequences*


*Reprinted with permission from: Eickhoff-Shemek J, Zabawa B, Fenaroli P. Law for Fitness Managers and Exercise Professionals. Fitness Law Academy, LLC. In press, 2020.

 Scenario #1: Many negligence lawsuits have involved injuries suffered by apparently healthy individuals due to the negligent conduct of exercise professionals (e.g., prescribing an unsafe exercise or an exercise or routine that was too intense). These professionals are practicing in a profession in which they did not first obtain the necessary knowledge and practical skills to meet the standard of care of a qualified exercise professional that they will likely be held to in a court of law. Without adequate knowledge and skills, they may not even realize what is meant by practicing within a professional scope of practice.

Scenario #2: Negligence lawsuits have also involved injuries suffered by individuals with clinical conditions because the exercise professionals did not appear to have the advanced knowledge and practical skills to work with clinical populations. In other words, they did not take the necessary precautions when designing/delivering an exercise program to help prevent the individual’s injury given his/her medical conditions. Without advanced knowledge and practical skills, they will likely not be able to meet the standard of care of a qualified clinical exercise professional, which is the standard they may be held to in a court of law.

Scenario #3: Although not as prevalent as negligence claims/lawsuits, cases in which the conduct of health/fitness professionals crossed over the line into a licensed profession have occurred. Most often, these cases have involved practicing dietetics without a license. If there is ever a question of certain practices (e.g., advice/recommendations, exercises) that might violate state licensing statutes, fitness managers and exercise professionals can check with their state’s regulatory departments or agencies and their legal counsel.

  1. Federation of State Medical Boards. Assessing Scope of Practice in Health Care Delivery: Critical Questions in Assuring Public Access and Safety, 2005. Available at: http://www.fsmb.org/siteassets/advocacy/policies/assessing-scope-of-practice-in-health-care-delivery.pdf. Accessed April 11, 2019.


Bio: JoAnn M. Eickhoff-Shemek, Ph.D., FACSM, FAWHP, Professor Emeritus (Exercise Science, University of South Florida) and President of the Fitness Law Academy, LLC, is an internationally known author and speaker. For more than 35 years, her teaching and research have focused on fitness safety, legal liability, and risk management issues. Dr. Eickhoff-Shemek is the lead author of a new textbook, Law for Fitness Managers and Exercise Professionals, to be released fall, 2020. Interested individuals can subscribe to her “free” quarterly newsletter at: www.fitnesslawacademy.com.

Photo Credit: Thanks to The U S Army via Flickr.



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