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Nutritionists and Personal Trainers - What's in a name?

Friday, June 12, 2009 Posted by Travis Saunders
Photo by ericmcgregor

As obesity, physical activity, and proper nutrition have become increasingly important topics within our society, we are seeing more and more people claim to be "experts" in these respective fields. For example, the news clip I posted Wednesday regarding chocolate and weight loss, included an interview with a "nutritionist". Now that sounds pretty official - he must have some sort of training in order to be called a nutritionist, right? Wrong.

Anyone, and I do mean anyone, can call themselves a nutritionist. For example, "I, Travis Saunders, am a nutritionist". I just did it. I could put that on my business card or resume, and have no fear of ever being sanctioned, because the term can be used by anyone, regardless of education, knowledge, or experience. The title is completely meaningless, and please point that out to anyone who claims to be one. Now if I were to claim that I were a physician, a lawyer, or physiotherapist, there would be serious repercussions. Not so with nutritionist. The term personal trainer is exactly the same - it can be used by absolutely anyone, and just because someone calls themselves a trainer does not mean that they have any training or skills whatsoever.

Why do I bring this up? One of the main reasons that Peter and I started this blog was because we saw so many people promoting training programs and weight loss gimmicks that are misleading, or even dangerous. These people often hide behind terms like personal trainer or nutritionist, which sound official, but really mean absolutely nothing. I get very frustrated when I hear some of the things that personal trainers tell their clients - things that at best are funny and misguided, and at worst can be dangerous and turn people off of physical activity forever. Most major fitness chains require that their trainers have Can-Fit-Pro certification, which requires a whopping 2 days of training. If you have ever taken a CPR weekend course, think about how little you know about life-saving. That is the same amount of training that most personal trainers have. This problem is not trivial - there is much more to personal training than simply showing someone how to lift weights. You need to understand metabolism, common injuries, illnesses, drugs, and how these things should dealt with in an exercise setting. Those aren't things that you can properly address in a 2 day course. It's a similar story with most nutritionists who, in contrast to Registered Dietitians, may have no special training whatsoever. 

Luckily, things are starting to move in the right direction. The Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology offers two certifications - Certified Personal Trainer (CPT) which requires a minimum of 2 years of post-secondary education in Kinesiology, and Certified Exercise Physiologist (CEP) which requires a minimum of a Bachelor of Science in Kinesiology, as well as requiring experience and core competencies in several areas.  In the United States, the American College of Sports Medicine offers similar designations known as Exercise Specialist and Registered Certified Exercise Physiologist. These terms are regulated, meaning that you can only call yourself a CPT or CEP if you have the required skills and education, and have passed a qualifying exam, just like any other professional designation (and in contrast to Can-Fit-Pro, which requires no training other than their own 2 day course). These terms are also being increasingly recognized, and many hospitals and clinics will only hire trainers that have a CPT or CEP.

These new certifications are great for several reasons. First of all, if you are being trained by a CPT or CEP, your trainer is much more likely to have the skills and knowledge necessary to train you safely and effectively. Just as importantly, these new designations make a Kinesiology degree far more valuable than it was just a few years ago. What's the point of doing a 4 year degree, when you can call yourself a personal trainer while you're still in high school? Now that these certifications are being required for an increasing number of jobs within the fitness and health industry, suddenly the Kinesiology degree is far more valuable, because it actually prepares you for a professional certification (just like a physiotherapy or occupational therapy degree prepares you for those professional certifications).

So, if you decide that you want the help of a personal trainer as you become more physically active, ask about your trainer's certifications. If they don't have a CPT or CEP, there is no guarantee that they have the knowledge or skills required to train you safely and effectively. There are enough obstacles to a proper fitness program, your personal trainer shouldn't be one of them.  For a list of Certified Personal Trainers and Certified Exercise Physiologists in your area, contact the Canadian Society for Exercise Physiology

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Have a great weekend,

Travis (Certified Exercise Physiologist)

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10 Response to "Nutritionists and Personal Trainers - What's in a name?"

  1. Rhiannon Said,

    As a CEP and Exercise Specialist - I appreciate this post a lot! Trying to get the word out to people that there is more to a trainer than one that can promote weight loss.. has been something I've been struggling with for a while!
    Thanks for the post!

    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 11:16 AM

  2. Lauri Said,

    Thank you. Over a year ago, I joined a gym and was assigned a trainer who told me there was no reason I couldn't look like her if I worked out daily and followed her diet. Nevermind she was 22 and I was 44. And that her diet was high in soy and I am allergic.

    The trainers at this gym were only required to pass a background check and look the part. While I didn't know that at the time, I joined because it was a national chain offering a low rate. 3 months later, after countless workouts with her, I had only lost 12 pounds (1 per week, not bad!). She kept harassing me about the diet -- just try soy again, soy is good for older women, etc. When I showed her my epi pen, she claimed it was a toy and refused to continue. I left the club.

    Had she been a real trainer, she might have found other dietary advice as well as understood that 1 lb/wk was a good weight loss rate.

    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 3:14 PM

  3. Matt Said,

    You make an excellent point. Being an informed consumer is much more difficult than most people realize. Sometimes we place too much trust in companies because they are a recognizable chain (as well stated by Lauri) and we ASSUME that the services they are selling us are not only safe, but that the people providing the service have to abide by a certain standard in order to protect the public. You mentioned that the "physiotherapist" title can only be used by an individual who has completed the required schooling. Although that is correct and it helps protect the public from imposters, the term "Physiotherapy" is not a protected term and anyone can provide physiotherapy. Currently, the College of Physiotherapists is pushing for legislation to change this, but it just shows how careful we have to be when it comes to buying services from the right people. You should never just assume that the guy sticking acupuncture needles in you is certified - ask to see credentials, and if need be, look the health professional up on their regulating college's website.

    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 6:27 PM

  4. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    Wow, thanks for the great comments!

    @ Rhiannon,

    I just recently wrote my CEP exam, and the hours and hours of studying drove home just how much CEPs need to know, and how much more I still have to learn. I think the CEP is becoming more and more recognized, and hopefully in a few years it will be essential to work as a professional trainer in any environment.

    @ Lauri,

    I'm sorry to hear that things didn't go well with your trainer. Unfortunately, I have heard similar stories from others. When a close friend didn't lose weight during training at a national chain she was told to get checked for a "food allergy", rather than re-evaluating the diet or training plan. I think the field of personal training is moving in the right direction, but it certainly has a ways to go. If you haven't already, I'd suggest you speak with with gym management and to others in the field. There are some excellent trainers working for the large chains, and they usually want to root out the bad trainers more than anyone.

    @ Matt

    Thanks for the excellent points Matt. I was unaware about the distinctions for physiotherapists, and I'm glad you brought them up!

    Posted on June 12, 2009 at 11:58 PM

  5. Darren Said,

    Here's some food for thought. If you want all "trainers" to have more formal education requirements, what about sports coaches working with children and teenagers? What about yoga and pilates instructors? What about martial arts instructors and dance teachers? Should they have to have bachelors degrees in exercise science as well? Should they have to be experts in pharmacology impacts on physical activity? Also I've met plenty of doctors with legitimate MD degrees that say stuff that is total BS. There are plenty of people with degrees or licenses that try to pass themselves off as an expert in something that isn't in their scope of training. Or they keep trying to pass off information that is really outdated and inaccurate as being presently factual. When it comes down to it, in any profession you'll find people that are good at what they do and knowledgeable, and people that are hacks. I don't care what someone's title is, they still need to prove themselves to me and earn my respect. Consumers shouldn't just look for a certification or college degree and assume their trainer knows what they are doing. The consumer should ask constant questions of their trainer. Ask them to teach and explain why they are doing what they are doing. Ask them for references from past clients that are similar in age, condition, gender, etc. Ask how many years the trainer has been working for. Find out how long their average client stays with them. Also look for trainers that are successful. If a trainer owns their own business, they probably have more experience and knowledge than a trainer making barely above minimum wage at a big box corporate owned gym. Anyways that's my two cents.

    Posted on June 14, 2009 at 3:20 AM

  6. justjuliebean Said,

    I've seen more misinformation and total crap come out of the mouths of those who pretend to know better. One guy did my body fat, then looked at my height on a chart, said I should weigh 110. At 5'5". Including DD boobs (sorry to be inappropriate, just trying to say I'm never going to be a stick). I told him that according to my bf%, I'm 115 pounds of bone and muscle, which means I'm more likely to weigh around 140. (Us damn scientist types that can do math are annoying!) He was determined and I was pissed. He wouldn't admit that there was anything wrong with his numbers, I walked out and sent a letter of complaint. I'm not likely to become anorexic, but that was some awful advice.

    Posted on June 14, 2009 at 10:02 AM

  7. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ Darren,

    You are absolutely right. Just because someone has formal training does not mean they will be competent. We all know MD's, PhD's, nurses, OT's, etc who are horrible at what they do. Growing up in Fredericton, we would go so far as to intentionally delay going to the ER depending on who was working, because we knew people who had had terrible experiences with one physician or another.

    That being said, I would still rather a physician, nurse, or personal trainer who has formal training over one who does not. The certification doesn't guarantee competence, but it does make it more likely.

    As you suggest, it is critical that people constantly question their trainers. Not only to determine if the trainer knows what they are talking about, but also to make sure that the training plan is what the client is looking for. For example, I come from a distance running background, while Peter has much more experience with resistance training. With the same client, and same long-term goals, it's likely we would create very different training plans. It's important that people question and discuss their training plan with their trainer to make sure it fits their goals and needs.

    And just as a side note, in an ideal world more sport coaches, yoga instructors, etc would have at least some formal training. In some European countries even youth sports coached by trained, professional coaches. In Canada I believe all coaches need at least Level 1 NCCP training, which is very minimal, but it is a step in the right direction. As I mentioned earlier, education never guarantees competence, but it does make it more likely.


    Posted on June 14, 2009 at 10:46 AM

  8. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ Justjuliebean,

    Unfortunately trainers are not the only health professionals who fixate on body weight. We have been promoting exercise as a tool for weight loss for so long, that people don't realize all of the benefits of physical activity even when no weight loss is taking place.

    People often exercise to lose weight, but when they realize that the weight loss is slow or minimal, they stop exercising, without realizing all of the health benefits that they were experiencing. We have done ourselves a great disservice by focusing on body weight so heavily over the years, and we need to do a better job of educating people to the benefits of physical activity even in the complete absence of weight loss.

    Posted on June 14, 2009 at 11:18 AM

  9. Bryan Smith Said,

    Hey Travis, It's Bryan Smith from LHHS.
    Now, I DEFINITELY agree with this post. But I do have some arguments.
    During my Can-Fit course, I was in class with a couple of 3rd year Kin. students. Granted, everytime the teacher asked about any muscle origin or insertion, these guys were spot on.. and also quick to correct the teacher with anything she messed up in those regards. But, as soon as we got out on the floor to do some exercises, they were completely out of their element. Even something as simple as a dumbbell chest press, they had absolutely no idea as to form, muscles worked.. it was terrible. Now, I am not stereotyping here, but from what I saw, I wouldn't let any of those guys put me through a workout.
    I have been reading about muscle imbalances and every study I can about mobility for approx. an hour a night, for the last year and a half, and can fix even my most kyphotic, pelvic titled clients with underactive glutes and poor patella tracking in under 6 months. And all I have is my Can-Fit. I just consider it a piece of paper, it was my "in" I guess you could say, into this profession. It was one of the easiest courses I have ever done, and I scored high 90's in the practical and the theoretical portions of the test.

    While I don't think that Can-Fit should be the qualifications someone should need to be a trainer (because I have had clients come to me in my gym because of the pain some Can-Fidiot has caused them), I don't completely agree with the fact that I should need a degree in my field either. I think 4 years relative experience should be good enough for anybody wondering about my qualifications.
    I have also had clients skip over me just based on looks. Sure, I look like I have worked out a little, and am by no means overweight, but if you place me beside Joe tank top with the huge delts, who do you think someone off the street is going to choose?
    This profession is turning into something I don't want it to be, and it is hard for me to tell people, "Yeah, I'm a personal trainer," when they ask my profession. Some of us are professionals and consider this a career, while others just want a place to check themselves out in the mirror while counting reps for clients.

    I like reading your articles though guys, keep them coming!

    Also, I have quite a few people who read my blog through my gym as well, and I was wondering if I could link them to your blog. I think it would help more than a few of my clients who have the same questions that you guys are answering.


    Posted on September 23, 2009 at 7:44 PM

  10. Travis Saunders, MSc Said,

    @ Brian,

    Thanks for that excellent comment, I think you are spot-on. You can have a Kinesiology/Human Kinetics degree and still be an awful personal trainer. There are a lot of different specialties within Kinesiology, and most of them don't prepare you to train people. And I can certainly sympathize with you on being frustrated with the way that the industry is going. But to me, those are some of the best arguments for a national designation like the CSEP-CPT and CSEP-CEP (and unlike Can-Fit Pro), that require a baseline level of education as well as theoretical and practical competence.

    For me, the main issue is this: no one will respect personal trainers until we weed out the incompetent ones. How do we do that? By requiring a national level of certification (e.g. CEP and CPT) just like every other health profession (nursing, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, etc).

    There are some people who would be excellent physiotherapists with or without formal training. But we recognize that most people would not, so we require a baseline level of education and practical competence of anyone who wants to practice in that field. The same should also be true of personal trainers. Unfortunately, since personal trainers are not held to the same high standards as other health professions, the level of care is compromised, which reflects badly on the profession as a whole. Some individuals like yourself will go out of their way to stay up-to-date and work on their competence. But judging by the state of the fitness industry, most will not.

    I sympathize with you on not wanting to get a degree at this point in your career, but I think that there is room for flexibility on this issue - grand-fathering in personal trainers like yourself who have experience and practical competence, but were already involved in the industry prior to the CSEP-CEP and CSEP-CPT designations coming into wide acceptance. But I feel very strongly that if we continue to allow people with no education and/or practical competence to work as personal trainers, the public and the industry as a whole will suffer.

    Thanks again for the excellent comment and keep in touch.


    Posted on September 24, 2009 at 10:36 AM


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We are PhD students in the School of Kinesiology and Health Studies at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. Our research focuses on the relationships between obesity, physical activity, and health risk. This blog is our attempt to consider the many "cures" for obesity that we read about on a daily basis. Enjoy.


The opinions expressed here belong only to Peter and Travis and do not reflect the views of any organization. Any medical discussion on this page is intended to be of a general nature only. This page is not designed to give specific medical advice. If you have a medical problem you should consult your own physician for advice specific to your own situation.

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