The statistics are staggering and well known to most fitness professionals. A global obesity epidemic is underway, stubbornly refusing to improve despite massive amounts of resources, attention and advocacy. Millions of adults—and now a burgeoning number of children—suffer from prediabetes or diabetes. In fact, one study estimates that one in three children born in the year 2000 will at some point in their lives develop diabetes. In addition, cardiovascular disease is the leading killer.
Each of these conditions is directly impacted by lifestyle choices—a combination of physical inactivity and poor nutritional intake. In fact, the prevalence of these diseases can be dramatically improved, if not reversed, or wholly prevented by a physically active lifestyle and wholesome and balanced nutrition choices. One recent study found that someone who follows a Mediterranean eating plan, maintains a normal weight, is physically active and has never smoked has an 80 percent decreased risk of death over eight years.
Despite a relatively widespread understanding of the role of activity and nutrition in optimizing health, very few people actually follow physical-activity and dietary guidelines—but many want to. And millions of people walk through the doors of a health club, medical fitness facility, studio or other locale to engage in some type of physical activity led or coached by an ACE-certified professional. They want to get fit. They want to achieve their health and wellness goals. They want to know more about nutrition. A fitness professional who focuses only on physical activity and avoids discussing nutrition is providing that client with less than optimal service.
Of course, fitness professionals are not nutrition “experts.” Generally, that designation is reserved for registered dietitians and others with advanced degrees in nutrition. However, fitness professionals don’t have to be nutrition “novices” either. With a clear understanding of what is and is not within their scope of practice, fitness professionals can effectively help their clients to achieve their goals, whether through direct provision of information and tools or through referral to a registered dietitian, when appropriate.
It is the position of the American Council on Exercise (ACE) that fitness professionals not only can but should share general nonmedical nutrition information with their clients. In the current climate of an epidemic of obesity, poor nutrition, and physical inactivity paired with a multibillion dollar diet industry and a strong interest among the general public in improving eating habits and increasing physical activity, fitness professionals are on the front lines in helping the public to achieve healthier lifestyles. Fitness professionals provide an essential service to their clients, the industry, and the community at large when they are able to offer credible, practical, and relevant nutrition information to clients while staying within their professional scope of practice.
Ultimately, an individual fitness professional’s scope of practice as it relates to nutrition is determined by state policies and regulations, education and experience, and competencies and skills. While this implies that the nutrition-related scope of practice may vary among fitness professionals, there are certain actions that are within the scope of practice of all fitness professionals.
For example, it is within the scope of practice of all fitness professionals to share dietary advice endorsed or developed by the federal government, especially the Dietary Guidelines for Americans (www.dietaryguidelines.gov) and the My Plate recommendations (www.ChooseMyPlate.gov).
Fitness professionals who have passed National Commission for Certifying Agencies (NCCA)– or American National Standards Institute (ANSI)– accredited certification programs that provide basic nutrition information, such as those provided by ACE, and those who have undertaken nutrition continuing education, should also be prepared to discuss:
Fitness professionals may share this information through a variety of venues, including cooking demonstrations, recipe exchanges, development of handouts and informational packets, individual or group classes and seminars, or one-on-one encounters. Fitness professionals who do not feel comfortable sharing this information are strongly encouraged to undergo continuing education to further develop nutrition competency and skills and to develop relationships with registered dietitians or other qualified health professionals who can provide this information. It is within the fitness professional’s scope of practice to distribute and disseminate information or programs that have been developed by a registered dietitian or medical doctor.
Given the alarming worldwide obesity epidemic, the eagerness of the general population to learn more about nutrition, and the large amount of nutrition misinformation readily available and perpetuated online, in magazines and through misinformed and unqualified individuals, fitness professionals should discuss nutrition with their clients. All fitness professionals should share the dietary recommendations and guidelines endorsed by the federal government, especially the Dietary Guidelines for Americans and the My Plate recommendations.
Supplement use is widespread among health enthusiasts, athletes and other individuals that seek the services of the fitness professional. In addition, many fitness facilities promote and sell supplements. As such, fitness professionals frequently field questions about supplements from clients. Due to the potential risks of supplement use, fitness professionals should never advise a client to take a supplement. However, fitness professionals can share information about supplements. When sharing information about supplements, it is important that the client understands that the fitness professional is not recommending or endorsing the supplement. Clients that are considering supplement use should be referred to a qualified medical professional or registered dietitian.
Most states prohibit promotion of oneself as a “nutritionist” or “dietitian” without verification of specific credentials. Fitness professionals who do not hold these credentials and have not been verified by the state licensing or registration board should NOT refer to themselves or promote themselves as nutritionists or dietitians.
As nutrition and exercise are both critical to achieve optimal health, fitness professionals are encouraged to share nutrition information with their clients. In those cases in which a client requests individualized nutrition information or when a client has a medical diagnosis that requires special nutrition recommendations, fitness professionals may serve their clients best by referring them to their physician and/or a registered dietitian for an individualized eating plan. The fitness professional still plays an important role in providing support and encouragement for the client to follow the recommended plan. Ultimately, when health professionals work together to help clients reach their goals, everyone benefits: the client receives the best care, while both professionals strengthen their networks and increase their credibility.