When running a fitness gym or coaching athletes, you have to be worried about more than just plan creation and marketing.  There’s what is legally required and there is professional and ethical behavior.

Let’s talk about 10 ethical guidelines for fitness professionals.

  1. Be Honest in your representations

They say you should fake it until you make it. But, when it comes to being a professional in the fitness industry, there is no room for faking it when it comes to how you represent yourself, your business relationships, and your knowledge of how to train your clients.

You should accurately and honestly represent your qualifications, skills, knowledge, and experience. You should not represent yourself in a misleading or deceptive manner to clients, vendors, or employers. We have talked about how certification as a fitness professional are not always legally required. So, there is really no reason for any representation you make about your professional certifications not to be honest and accurate.

This honesty extends to avoiding behavior, actions, or words that give even the appearance of a conflict of interest. If you gain financial incentives for upselling certain products or services, then you should clearly declare those.

  1. Stay within your professional lane

It might be tempting to accept a contract and hope you can learn how to provide services or advice as you go, but ethically this is problematic behavior. Fitness professionals should, ethically, provide coaching, training, or teaching services in areas whether they are sufficiently competent, whether by education, experience (under the supervision of another professional) or other training.

Specifically, fitness professionals should not provide medical, nutrition, or other advice unless they are qualified to do so. While not providing medical advice is clearly illegal unless you are a medical professional, you should be aware that this includes diagnosing health or medically related conditions, recommending treatment, and providing medical treatment.

With the rise of supplements, many fitness professionals are at risk of falling into unauthorized activity when it comes to providing nutritional or dietary advice to clients. Many states explicitly disallow this unless by a properly licensed dietetics professional. We have written about the risks of providing nutrition advice previously.

While we’re talking about supplements, be very careful of reiterating the often unsubstantiated claims of the distributor or manufacturer (and even making specific recommendations to clients). If a client wants further nutritional information or advice, refer them to a registered dietician or medical professional for advice.

Finally, it is really okay to say…. “I don’t know, or that’s not what I’m trained in.” Humility can go along way in protecting you ethically!

  1. Guard your client’s confidentiality

As a fitness professional, you have a legal and ethical responsibility to guard the privacy and confidentiality of your clients and any personal information they have shared with you. You should not share any personally identifiable information about any individual you have worked with, or are currently working with – whether verbally or in writing. You should also ensure that you have procedures in place to protect any personal information, whether health related or not, from being accessed by others. HIPAA may not apply to fitness professionals, but that does not mean you don’t have a responsibility to protect client information.

One final point: Be very careful telling stories about your clients, including on social media, even without names.

  1. Maintain appropriate boundaries

You should behave professionally in all relationships with fellow fitness professionals and clients. Your behavior should be beyond question or reproach. For further questions about when and how to touch clients, review this article. You should avoid personal relationships with your clients, and specifically any romantic relationships. If you do find yourself in a consensual relationship with an adult client, you should end the professional relationship.

  1. Pursue Good business practices

In addition to honesty in all of your dealings, practicing respect for your clients, your colleagues, and yourself is good business practice. Good business practices also include conducting your business in accordance with the relevant state and federal laws and regulations, including taxation. Find an attorney who can help you with business formation and compliance, an accountant or tax advisor to help you with making sure your internal financial controls are above board, an insurance broker who can help you with ensuring appropriate insurance coverage, and a mentor within the fitness industry who can help you as you build your fitness business.

  1. Ongoing Professional Education

Ethically, training and competence are important for any person asserting that they are a professional in the fitness industry. Competence is also essential for decreasing the risk of liability because it leads to a decreased likelihood of injury. You should undertake a program of ongoing professional education – whether this is required (or not) by any professional association of which you are a member. Undertaking specialist training in areas of interest and increasing your professional knowledge and experience is an ethical responsibility. It is also important to ensure that you are up-to-date with your first aid and CPR certifications.

  1. Intellectual Property

Intellectual property law applies to the fitness industry. You should respect the intellectual property of others within and outside the fitness industry: this includes learning about copyright and trademarks. Do not violate the intellectual property rights of others by using images, fitness class names, music, fitness videos, or other copyrighted content without proper licensing.

Do not use before and after images of clients without explicit permission from the client.

  1. Tailor your Instruction for each client

Not only is providing instruction that allows for each client to participate at the appropriate fitness and health level for them good practice, tailoring your instruction for each client is a good idea legally and ethically. There is an increased risk of liability if you fail to appropriately assess the needs and fitness level of your client and instead direct them to complete an exercise program that leads to injury. Here is a list of 12 liability risks for fitness professionals.

  1. Refer to competent professionals

If it is outside the scope of your services, or you are not able, whether for legal reasons or otherwise, to provide a service, advice, or information for a client, you should refer them to a competent professional. It is a good idea to provide the names of more than one professional that they might consult. If you receive a financial incentive to refer clients to a specific professional or professional practice you ethically (and in some jurisdictions) legally need to declare that to your client at the time of the referral.

  1. Listen to your client

Sometimes the obvious needs to be said: Listen to your client. At one end of the spectrum you should do this so that you don’t hurt or injure your client by instructing them to do activities that are not appropriate for their level of fitness or which may exacerbate an injury, on the other, it is just good business. If you aren’t listening to your clients then you don’t know what they need and will pay for!

Are you a professional or not?

This list of ethical guidelines is not comprehensive, but is a starting point for you to consider how all aspects of your behavior reflect on your as a fitness professional. This isn’t just about doing the bare minimum legally required or looking for ways to deceive or manipulate clients or potential clients. This is about presenting yourself as a representative of the fitness industry in the best light possible.

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About Author

Anna Blanch Rabe is a communications consultant, writer, and speaker. A non-practicing attorney, she works with social impact businesses and non-profit organizations to develop and effectively execute narrative initiatives to gain exposure, develop community capacity, and reach new customers. A former college level athlete, she now enjoys yoga and swimming, and crewing for her trail and ultrarunning husband.

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