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Economic times remain tough, so it's comforting to have a Plan B. If this journalism line doesn't work out, I always can fall back on the fitness industry.

I'm not a certified personal trainer — at least not yet. I still need to pay $129 to the St. Louis-based American Sports and Fitness Association before I can get suitable-for-framing proof of my credentials.

On Thursday, I passed the association's 100-question, online examination for aspiring personal trainers. Pardon my immodesty, but I nailed it with a 94 percent. I was, I admit, puzzled by some questions, like which exercises best utilize the gastrocnemius.

Beats me. Truth is, I haven't spent any quality time in a workout room since high school and only then when it was too rainy for gym classes to be held outside.

My primary knowledge of personal training comes from the "Rocky" movies, and I'll probably incorporate some of Burgess Meredith's techniques when I hang out my own fitness shingle. Make my charges chase chickens and call them bums, that sort of thing.

I might have known what a gastrocnemius is had I pored over the nine books the association suggests reading before taking the test. I winged it and, the first time, scored a 48 percent. But just like Rocky Balboa, I didn't settle for a noble defeat.

Retaking the online test was a good deal easier, because the association's website tells you which questions you got wrong. It either gives the right answer or offers a pretty obvious hint.

If being a physical trainer isn't your thing — or you can't swing the $129 price tag — the association offers $99 certifications for sports nutritionists and health club managers, as well as instructors of martial arts, self defense, senior fitness, pilates, water aerobics and golf-strength training.

All these certifications require online exams, although applicants don't need to pay until they ace the tests. When they fail, the website provides the answers and a second chance.

After applicants score the 70 percent minimum grade needed to win certification, the website offers congratulations and directs them to an online shopping cart where, as the site says, "you can finish purchasing your certification."

If you think the association sounds like a certification mill, you wouldn't be the first.

The St. Louis Better Business Bureau says the American Sports and Fitness Association enables unqualified trainers and instructors to deceive the public. Michelle Corey, the BBB's president and chief executive, said in a statement that the association's certifications "have about as much credibility as a three-dollar bill."

According to state business records, the association is registered as a fictitious name of a for-profit company that seems to be based out of a St. Louis apartment. It also isn't clear from its website whether the association has actual members.

Kurtis Scott Lippman, the company's registered agent, calls himself the "executive director." He refused to be interviewed, citing in an e-mail "a very busy schedule."

In the e-mail, he described the association as "a National leader in continuing education and niche marketing certifications in the fitness world." He said it has certified "many thousands of fitness professionals" in this country and abroad.

Lippman also pointed to the 2,373-word disclaimer on his business's website. Any would-be trainers must agree to those terms before buying a certification. They must agree they "completed this test without the assistance of others;" they will get CPR training and "attain a letter of consent from the personal physician of all clients;" and that they will "complete a full practicum/internship (minimum twenty-five hours) with a certified trainer before training individually."

On that last point, I suspect "certified trainer" means an instructor with certification other than the kind sold by Lippman's outfit. That's because, as the disclaimer notes, "ASFA certifications are not intended to be sole or primary certifications."

There is nothing new about websites selling degrees and the like. One online seminary claims to have ordained more than 20 million ministers.

Personal trainers and nutritionists seem different, if only because unqualified ones can do worse than cheat clients by providing worthless services. Quackery in these fields can lead to serious physical injuries — reason enough for fitness-minded consumers to take a closer look at the framed certification hanging on the walls of their trainers' gyms.

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