Natural Allies in Health

Why trainers and coaches should join forces with allied health professionals—and how to get started.

by Debbie Bellenger, MA

Recent healthcare news hasn’t been particularly positive. One example: According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, adult obesity rates climbed from 30.5% in 1999–2000 to 39.6% in 2015–2016, a 30% increase (Hales et al. 2017). The obesity epidemic is expanding, but that’s just one piece of the disarrayed wellness puzzle. People are also dealing with a wide range of other health challenges and are turning to a variety of professionals who can help.

Personal trainers and coaches fit into this category and should make a concerted effort to work with physical therapists; nutritionists; and other allied health professionals, or AHPs.

Why? Well, consider the typical doctor’s advice to the typical sedentary patient: “Move more and eat better.” Or, think about a surgeon’s post-op advice: “Strengthen your legs and get specialized help.”

Both patients require the support of AHPs, the people in health care who are not doctors, nurses or pharmacists. That’s a vast range of people these days: dietitians, occupational and rehabilitation therapists, lab technicians, and many more. The principal challenge for many AHPs is adherence: getting patients to stick with their programs. Meanwhile, trainers and coaches specialize in leadership, guidance and inspiration that help cement adherence. Thus, teaming up with AHPs can mean more clients for you and more patient compliance for AHPs. It’s a perfect fit.

Connecting With AHPs

Fitness professionals already know the many positive effects of exercise, and we are perfectly primed to support AHPs in altering unsustainable and unhealthy trends. The American healthcare system and AHPs need personal trainers to help improve health at an individual level; to support the movement toward prevention in our healthcare system; and to boost patient/client adherence.

The challenge for trainers and coaches is figuring out how to network with AHPs and secure referrals from them. Start by asking yourself these questions:

  • Where would physical and occupational therapists turn if their patients needed extra, concentrated, nonmedical help with building strength and agility?
  • Whom would cancer physicians contact if they needed a trainer to help patients increase their strength and fitness levels before or after surgery?
  • Where would cardiac patients go after completing phase two of their rehab? Personal trainers and coaches belong in this continuum of care. AHPs need you to create specific exercise plans that improve their patients’ health.

Anticipating Roadblocks to Working With AHPs

AHPs won’t be lining up for your services. They’re busy people with busy patients. Before reaching out to them for referrals, you need to understand the environments they typically work in:

  • The pace is fast, often driven by volumes measured in daily appointments or billable units per day.
  • The drive for volume limits the time patients spend with AHPs, so there’s not much conversation about lifestyle behavior change. That’s where you, the trainer, come in.
  • Health insurance often covers the cost of working with AHPs, so patients may be concerned about out-of-pocket charges for your services. For example, cardiac patients typically get a certain number of rehab sessions covered by insurance. After those sessions, they may be told they must continue with their exercise program or face a relapse and an expensive return to treatment. Patients might be uneasy when they find that switching to a personal trainer means an out-of-pocket fee and sometimes a gym membership.
  • AHPs may have misconceptions about the work personal trainers do. Maybe all they know is what they see in the media. We need to show we are well-educated professionals who know how to write safe, effective exercise plans and that we understand when a client’s needs are outside our scope of practice.

We need to ask ourselves: Can we meet the needs of our clients where they are? Can we maximize referrals and continue patients’ success after cardiac rehab or in their progress with any other medical diagnosis?

How Do Personal Trainers Overcome Potential Objections?

Think about ways to encourage AHPs to partner with you. For instance, you can explain to AHPs how you will keep their patients safe and active and encourage compliance with their care plans. You can promise to share any concerns that arise as patients progress with their personal training appointments.

You also can describe the benefits their patients will experience if they start exercising regularly with you. For instance, they might see improvements in blood pressure, blood glucose, BMI and more. Be ready to share your successes with AHPs.

Ultimately, referral patterns and transitions of care must support the patients who become clients. That means working together to create a story of shared success and improved health. Talk to current clients who work with AHPs to get a feel for their motivations and goals. Consult with your fellow trainers and find out how they landed referrals. Then share your success stories.

Tips on Working With AHPs

What education/training do AHPs have? Why does it matter? If you understand their credentialing process, you will appreciate that they typically come from an academic environment that is science-based and data-driven. So, don’t forget you must have data. Respect their education, share data and outcomes, and demonstrate that your services help their patients. The data you gather on your clients’ performance gains can support the goals of your AHP partners. You can help improve fall prevention scores and optimize blood pressure and blood glucose indicators. You can show improvements in BMI, tobacco cessation and other criteria.

Some AHPs work through the primary care physician healthcare model. They work by appointment, without much face-to-face time with patients. They have emergency protocols. They typically work in clinics with patient rooms that are sanitized and pristine. Thus, training in fitness centers needs to closely mirror this physical environment—reassuring AHPs that their patients are in good hands with us—while shoring up the gap in personal interactions.

Helping AHPs Adapt to the Changing Face of Health Care

In January 2018, The Governance Institute’s E-Briefings summarized where U.S. health care is going in the years to come:

“Hospitals and health systems will continue to invest in information systems, infrastructure, primary care, medical management, and new value-based care and payment models that reward population health management. They will look to further partner with community organizations to address social determinants and their relationship to a population’s health. This effort will also support the continued development of programs to enhance ‘consumer stickiness’ through improved patient communication and engagement methods, patient satisfaction incentives, repeat interactions, and easy and convenient access to care (Valentine & Masters 2018).”

This is the world AHPs will inhabit: population health management, value-based care and outcome-driven models that boost patient engagement while improving well-being. It’s easy to imagine a coach or fitness trainer helping them in any of these scenarios.

Persistent obesity and extreme cost increases are creating a healthcare crisis that will oblige patients and clients to take more individual responsibility for staying healthy. This trend creates an opportunity for fitness professionals to partner with AHPs, creating continuums of care that easily transition people from patient to client. We need to remove barriers and meet our clients’ needs exactly where they are—a challenge that’s worth the effort!


Hales, C.M., et al. 2017. Prevalence of obesity among adults and youth: United States, 2015–2016. NCHS Data Brief, 288, 5.

Valentine, S., & Masters, G. 2018. Healthcare forecast 2018: 10 trends (implications) board leaders need to know. The Governance Institute’s E-Briefings, 15 (1), 1. Accessed Apr. 25, 2018:

Meet our experts

DEBBIE BELLENGER, MA DEBBIE BELLENGER, MA, is the director of Employer Wellness Services at CaroMont Health. She is responsible for developing, delivering and evaluating new employee wellness programs for the 4,500 employees of CaroMont Regional Medical

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