It is as simple as this: Clients expect a certain amount of confidentiality and professionalism when they hire a personal trainer. Most will assume that a fitness trainer will not make their personal business a source of water-cooler gossip, and certainly, they will not expect to be made fun of on social media posts. In fact, some people go so far as to have personal trainers sign confidentiality agreements. With so many trainers not having a clue about professional behavior, and being quite immature, this may be quite necessary, at times.
Consultation with Other Professionals About a Client
There may be situations that require a personal trainer to consult with other professionals. It usually should not be necessary for that trainer to personally identify you, or to divulge anything specific about you that could lead to your identity being ascertained. Although it may not always happen, it is proper for a trainer to let you know before he and she consults with others about your training. They should also let you know before they refer you out to another professional. That is, another pro should never contact you out of the blue and say “so and so referred you to me,” without you knowing about it in advance.
Legal Ramifications of Confidentiality in Personal Training
Trainers should be aware that the failure to maintain client confidentiality could lead to legal action. Your client may have a professional reputation to consider, and hence, they may not take kindly about your recounting the “stupid” thing they did or said during a session, or during a communication. Talking about anything that goes on with a client in public is completely unprofessional. Personal training can be an extremely frustrating career, but this does not give you clearance to complain about clients in public. Even if others don’t know who you’re talking about, your client may well find out, and other potential clients will be left thinking that you’ll do the same thing to them!
So, What is Confidentiality?
The problem is that not everyone has the same definition of confidentiality. Many people think that confidentiality simply means not exposing any personal details about a client. However, you do not have to expose personal details to break confidentiality. In its broadest sense, confidentiality means that ANY information passed between you and your trainer should not be shared with others without your permission.
Documentation Kept by the Trainer
Most personal trainers will keep detailed notes about what goes on in your training, starting right from the initial interview. These materials are important, as they help the trainer keep up with and plan your future training, and they also provide documentation, should the trainer need records of what kinds of training were used. The trainer should take precautions to protect this documentation and keep it private.
What Can Be Exposed?
Obviously, if a professional trainer is expected to never use information derived from the training of their clients, it would be difficult, if not impossible, for them to market their business. Just like a home improvement or painting company might use before and after photos of their work for marketing purposes, a trainer must be able to use certain information to show the success of their training practices. As long as such information is not personally identifiable to you, then you should not need to be concerned at all.
Using Client Information for Marketing
As should be clear, if a trainer uses information that could identify you, such as information about your progress, before and after photos, etc. for the purposes of public marketing, this is a gross violation of confidentiality. No information about you are your training should be used for marketing unless you give the trainer written permission to do so. Sometimes it may be difficult to decide what can and cannot be shared. Although trainers need to have some freedom to use certain types of information, if you feel exposed, discuss it and let your trainer know how you feel. You and your needs should be more important than the needs of marketing.
Consent Form and Confidentiality
During your first meeting, a trainer should usually mention confidentiality to you and inform you that no personally identifiable information will be shared without your permission. If it is not mentioned, feel free to ask. You will probably sign some kind of participation consent form before beginning to work with a personal trainer. Note whether the form has a section on confidentiality. If not, and if you are concerned, ask the trainer about it. The NSCA’s (National Strength and Conditioning Association) Essentials of Personal Training, provides the following example of a confidentiality clause in an informed consent for participation form:
I have been informed that the information obtained in this personal fitness training program will be treated as privileged and confidential and will consequently not be released or revealed to any person without my express written consent. I do, however, agree to the use of any information that is not personally identifiable with me for research and statistical purposes so long as same does not identify me or provide facts that could lead to my identification. I also agree to the use of any information for the purpose of consultation with other health/fitness professionals, including my doctor. Any other information obtained, however, will be used by the program staff in the course of prescribing exercise for me and evaluating my progress in the program.
I would like to make a special note about the part of this clause that says “I also agree to the use of any information for the purpose of consultation with other health/fitness professionals, including my doctor.”
You will notice that this part seems to give carte blanche to share any information with anybody the trainer or organization deems “a professional.” Normally, in medical settings, you would never give such open-ended permission, but instead, sign releases specifically to give permission for information to be released to a certain entity. Such a release may mention only one person or entity to whom the information can be released, or more than one, but each should be named specifically and permission should be given for each. This open-ended release would be considered quite inappropriate, and in a medical setting, it would not be considered a valid release. This type of release would NOT give them permission to speak with anyone they deemed necessary. Think twice before signing such a consent, a feel free to mention what you’ve read here. You have a right to know exactly what will be done with your info and with whom it will be shared.
You would be surprised at the kind of people some fitness trainers consider professional! Do not give anyone permission to arbitrarily share information with whomever they see fit. The online PDF consent form provided by the ACSM uses very similar language in “Section 4: Confidentiality and Use of Information,” but leaves out the part about the release of information to professionals. This is not surprising, coming from a more medically oriented organization.
A personal trainer should never gossip about their clients to you, or make fun of them during their training session with you. It is very easy to feel like you have a personal relationship with your trainer, and that you are just “two friends shooting the bull.” However, any trainer who behaves this way is behaving unprofessionally, and you should be aware that there is every chance they are gossiping about you to another client. Gossips gossip, after all.
Making Fun Of or Complaining About Clients on the Internet
It is quite common for personal fitness trainers to go on Facebook or another social media site and air their frustrations or grievances about their clients. Usually, such posts would not present any particular danger to the client, as far as identity is concerned. However, it certainly speaks to professionalism. If your trainer complains about YOU and you see the post or find out about it, then you will probably have some serious reservations about them. Likewise, if you were thinking of hiring a certain trainer, and you catch them behaving this way online, and talking trash about their clients, you probably should NOT hire them.
Why? Maybe someone just really frustrated them, right? Maybe they just needed to vent. Well, true professionals do not have such a recourse. But that is not the real problem. What you should be asking is, if this person felt free to complain in vague terms in public, what might he or she be sharing in private, say, with their colleagues or friends? You should never be made to feel this way by a professional trainer, regardless if you think confidentiality has actually been breached.
There is no point in spending hundreds of bucks on personal training and being uncomfortable. There are plenty of professional trainers out there! If you don’t feel that your trainer is mature enough to merit the mantle of “professional” then move on.