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Physical Fitness Majors and Degree Programs

Read about degree programs providing studies in physical fitness. Find out what degrees are offered, admission requirements and courses included in the curricula of these programs. Get information about career and continuing education options for graduates as well as employment and salary details for some careers in this field.

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Essential Information

Physical fitness majors receive training in health and wellness and in various sports and recreation activities. 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.

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.

Educational Prerequisites

Students need high school diplomas or the equivalent to be admitted into associate's degree programs. While there are generally no prerequisites, an interest in sports, health or physical activity is helpful.

Program Coursework

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

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 (, growth in the health club and fitness industry is causing job growth for fitness workers. Fitness trainers and instructors face better than the national average job prospects during the period from 2010-2020. Median annual wages for fitness trainers were reported at $31,720, as of May 2012.

Certification and Continuing Education

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.

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.

Educational Prerequisites

A high school diploma or equivalent is needed for admittance into bachelor's degree programs. Some programs require previous coursework in science (biology, chemistry and physics) and math. Although not usually a requirement, courses in health and psychology can be helpful.

Program Coursework

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

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

Employment for athletic trainers is projected to increase at a much faster than average rate during the period from 2010-2020, 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 2012, mean annual wages for athletic trainers were $44,010 annually.

Certification and Continuing Education

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.

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.

Educational Prerequisites

Applicants to master's degree programs should hold a bachelor's degree. Some programs require previous coursework in biology, chemistry, anatomy and physiology, psychology and exercise physiology.

Program Coursework

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

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

Licensing, Certification and Continuing Education

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

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.

Educational Prerequisites

Some programs require a master's degree in exercise science, kinesiology or another closely related area. Other majors may be accepted if students have completed the prescribed amount of coursework in areas such as chemistry, anatomy, physiology, biology and psychology.

Program Coursework

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

Employment Outlook and Salary Information

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 17% between 2010 and 2020, according to BLS data. In 2012, postsecondary health specialties teachers earned median annual salaries of $81,140.

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Source: Bureau of Labor Statistics