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Finding Fitness Professionals Trained in Diabetes (It’s Hard!)

By Sheri Colberg, Ph.D.

One in three Americans has diabetes or prediabetes. You would think that finding a fitness professional—a personal trainer, physical therapist, or other allied fitness and health trainer—who knows enough about diabetes to be helpful rather than harmful would not be that hard, right? Think again.

Why does it matter whether your trainer knows about diabetes? Well, if you had severe arthritis in your knees, you’d want a trainer who knows enough to avoid making you do certain activities that might be injury-inducing (burpees come to mind). The same goes if you have diabetes. Over the years, I have just heard of too many trainers ending up getting their clients injured because they didn’t understand that diabetes makes people more prone to overuse injuries, or that certain medications increase the risk for activity-associated hypoglycemia, or that most people with type 2 diabetes who are overweight and sedentary are going to be demotivated or injured by being forced to train like they do on “The Biggest Loser” (even though trainers shouting at people makes for good reality TV).

Many professional fitness organizations certify trainers and other fitness professionals, including the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM), American Council on Exercise (ACE), National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM), Athletics and Fitness Association of America (AFAA), International Sports Sciences Association (ISSA), and at least 30 other groups that offer certifications for personal trainers, health coaches, and other allied professions. The certification requirements vary widely by organization, however, and most (but not all) require continuing education to maintain the certification. Some offer full training courses, while others barely meet minimal standards (which is another issue, but one that I will not be addressing here). The premier certifying organizations are ACSM and ACE at present.

One problem is that it’s not easy to identity certified fitness professionals who are knowledgeable about working with people with diabetes (all types and ages). ACSM has a “ProFinder” to look for people with active certification, but it’s very limited in scope. For instance, I searched for ACSM certified personal trainers with active certifications (all continuing education completed) anywhere in California, and the search came back with none (how is this even possible?). Even if I had found some listed, I would have had no idea if they had taken a diabetes specialty course when using this database. IDEA Health & Fitness Association has an online search tool to find a local trainer (https://www.ideafit.com/find-personal-trainer) that allows you to search by activity (e.g., kettlebells, kickboxing, and cycling) and specialty (such as “diet and nutrition”), but diabetes is not listed as a search option.

Another issue is that very few diabetes training programs are available for fitness professionals, and most trainers are more interested in learning more about training techniques that they can use in their prescribed workouts than chronic diseases. I personally have been on a crusade for the past two years trying to offer expert training for fitness professionals about working with diabetic clients. It took me two years to get a program that I created through ACSM, but it is finally online as of February 2017 (http://acsm.ideafit.com/acsm/diabetes-for-the-exercise-professional). I will shortly have a program offered through ACE as well, and hopefully NASM/AFAA is next on my hit list.

Currently, I offer a three-level program through the Diabetes Motion Academy for fitness professionals that used to be approved (as a third-party) through a number of these certifying organizations (https://www.dmacademy.com/fitness-professionals), but those organizations do nothing to advertise or market content that they did not create themselves for continuing education (it’s not enough of a financial gain for them, I guess).

One bright note on the horizon is an organization called the Medical Fitness Network (MFN) (https://medicalfitnessnetwork.org), a free online resource directory for consumers to locate fitness and allied healthcare professionals who have a background in and provide services for those with chronic disease, medical conditions, disabilities, and women’s health issues.

MFN donates its service as a database management company to the top medical and health organizations that do not offer resources for locating these professionals. Fitness and healthcare professionals can join to increase their online exposure and credibility for a modest annual fee (https://medicalfitnessnetwork.org/welcome). It is my hope that some of the larger fitness organizations (like ACSM) will also soon see the value of making diabetes-savvy fitness professionals easier for consumers to find—for the benefit of everyone!

In addition to my educational web site, Diabetes Motion (www.diabetesmotion.com), I also recently founded an academy for fitness and other professionals seeking continuing education enabling them to effectively work with people with diabetes and exercise: Diabetes Motion Academy, accessible at www.dmacademy.com. Please visit those sites and my personal one (www.shericolberg.com) for more useful information about being active with diabetes.