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Physical Fitness Majors and Degree Programs

Physical fitness majors receive training in health and wellness and in various sports and recreation activities. Individuals interested in physical fitness may consider pursuing associate's, bachelor's, master's or doctoral programs in exercise science.

Essential Information

Physical fitness programs, most commonly referred to as exercise science programs, prepare graduates for careers as athletic trainers, coaches, team managers, exercise instructors, or health club facility directors. Degrees are offered at both the undergraduate and graduate levels. Typical course topics include nutrition, kinesiology, anatomy, biomechanics and exercise physiology. Advanced studies allow students to select an area of concentration, such as those offered in physical therapy or health management. At the graduate level, students also typically complete a thesis. Some careers relating to physical fitness could require licensure or certification.

  • Program Levels in Exercise Science: Associate's, bachelor's, master's and doctorate
  • Prerequisites: A high school diploma or equivalent for an associate's; a high school diploma, standardized test scores and background in science and math for a bachelor's; a bachelor's and previous relevant coursework for a master's; a master's degree and background in a closely related area for a doctorate
  • Program Length: 2 years for the associate's program; 4 years for the bachelor's program

Associate's Degree Programs in Exercise Science

Associate degree programs in exercise science are 2-year programs meant to prepare graduates for entry-level careers in the physical fitness field or for transfer to a 4-year program. Students research physical fitness topics and learn how to help others become better athletes.

Students receive a strong foundation in the science of physical fitness and learn techniques for promoting health through lifestyle and physical activity. Courses might include:

  • Biology
  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Injury prevention
  • Nutrition
  • Health and wellness

Bachelor's Degree Programs in Exercise Science

Exercise science degree programs at the bachelor's degree level are 4-year programs providing students with the knowledge necessary for careers in the physical fitness industry, including athletic training and coaching, or for continued education in areas such as physical therapy. Students learn about the science of human movement (kinesiology) along with techniques to help others improve their physical fitness.

Students explore concepts behind physical fitness and learn skills for promoting health and wellness. Some programs offer specialized tracks for those interested in physical therapy or other specialty areas, such as athletic training and health management. Course topics include:

  • Anatomy and physiology
  • Safety and first aid
  • Nutrition
  • Kinesiology or human movement
  • Psychology

Master's Degree Program in Exercise Science

Master's degree programs in exercise science provide further study in the area of physical fitness. Some programs are designed to prepare students for work as certified athletic trainers. Other programs allow students to pursue a specialized interest, such as rehabilitation or the biological basis of physical activity.

Master's degree programs in exercise science typically require two years to complete. Some programs, such as those designed for athletic trainers, may include a clinical component. Most master's degree programs require that students complete theses. Courses might include:

  • Physiology of exercise
  • Therapeutic exercise
  • Biomechanics
  • Sport psychology
  • Public health

Ph.D. Programs in Exercise Science

Doctoral or Ph.D. programs in exercise science often allow students to pursue a narrow area of interest, such as applied physiology or the behavioral basis of physical activity.

In addition to completing courses, doctoral students usually choose a focus for their research and write a dissertation. Courses might include:

  • Statistics
  • Research design
  • Exercise physiology
  • Pathophysiology
  • Motor development and control

Popular Career Options

A master's degree in exercise science opens the doors to a wide range of careers in the physical fitness industry. Depending on the focus of the degree, graduates might consider jobs as:

  • Athletic trainers
  • Coaches
  • Team managers

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

An associate's degree in exercise science prepares graduates for work in fitness centers, other types of wellness centers or fitness equipment sales companies. Some job titles include health club manager, personal trainer or equipment salesperson. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (www.bls.gov), growth in the health club and fitness industry is causing job growth for fitness workers. Fitness trainers and instructors face an employment growth rate of 13%, about as fast as the national average for all occupations during the period from 2012-2022. Median annual wages for fitness trainers were reported at $34,980, as of May 2014.

Employment for athletic trainers and exercise physiologists is projected to increase at 19%, much faster than the average rate during the period from 2012-2022, according to the BLS. Job opportunities will be good in fitness and recreation sports centers, along with civic and social organizations and colleges and universities. As of May 2014, median annual wages for athletic trainers were $43,370 annually.

Those with a doctorate or Ph.D. in Exercise Science are well-qualified for academic, research or practitioners careers in colleges, universities and health care settings or with businesses and industries related to physical fitness. Employment of postsecondary teachers should increase by about 19% between 2012 and 2022, according to BLS data. In 2014, postsecondary health specialties teachers earned median annual salaries of $90,210.

Continuing Education and Certification

Some associate's degree programs in exercise science are designed for easy transfer to a 4-year bachelor's degree program in a related area. Those who do not intend to pursue a bachelor's degree should consider certification in the area in which they plan to work. Several agencies provide certification for personal trainers, including the American College of Sports Medicine and the American Council on Exercise. Other professional organizations certify in areas such as Pilates or yoga instruction.

Those interested in physical therapy will need to continue on to graduate programs in physical therapy. Others may consider graduate education as a way to gain an advantage in the workforce or to pursue additional interests. As mentioned above, fitness workers should consider earning certification in the areas in which they intend to work. Certification is required for athletic trainers in almost all states. Athletic training certification is available through the Board of Certification, Inc.

Graduates of master's programs should consider certification in the areas in which they plan to work. Students interested in research or academic careers can pursue a doctoral degree.

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