Exercise physiologists work in numerous health, fitness and wellness fields that involve nutrition and exercise. Topics of discussion in exercise physiology programs span from endurance and biochemistry to stress testing and leadership. The curriculum combines clinical work and general education with core classes such as physiology, nutrition and rehabilitation. Program fields include exercise physiology and exercise science. To ensure that incoming students are able to participate in laboratory exercises, many programs conduct a physical examination as part of the admissions process.
In addition to having a high school diploma, some bachelor's programs may require college prep classes in English, mathematics, biology, chemistry and physics. Potential graduate students must have an undergraduate degree in kinesiology or exercise science. If students have a degree in an unrelated field, they must take prerequisite coursework in biology, exercise and nutritional sciences.
Requirements for graduation may include a clinical practicum and internship as well as a thesis or dissertation. Although certification in exercise physiology is voluntary, most graduates obtain certification. Graduates would would only need to pursue licensure if they plan on working as physical therapists.
Bachelor of Science in Exercise Physiology
A bachelor's degree program in exercise physiology teaches students about cardiovascular fitness, muscular strength, endurance, flexibility and body composition. Students learn how cells, tissues, organs and organ systems respond to exercise and other physical exertions. The undergraduate curriculum for exercise physiology is broad and includes courses in the liberal arts and sciences. It culminates with a clinical practicum or internship during a students' senior year that involves working at a rehabilitation center for one semester. Typical coursework includes:
- Human anatomy
- Human nutrition
- Abnormal psychology
- Human biochemistry
Master of Science in Exercise Physiology
A master's degree program in exercise physiology prepares students for careers in health, fitness, athletics and rehabilitation. Students spend equal amounts of time in the classroom and in laboratories, working on developing changes to research in fields, such as health and wellness, clinical research and cardiopulmonary rehabilitation. They can often choose to complete a thesis or take additional courses to make up the credits that they would otherwise complete with the thesis. Examples of program coursework include:
- Exercise leadership
- Chemistry of exercise
- Nutrition and energy
- Advanced biochemistry
Ph.D. in Exercise Physiology
A Ph.D. program involves research specific to a student's area of focus and culminates in a defended dissertation. Students continue the coursework they began under a master's degree program for exercise physiology in order to specialize in research and academic positions. During the first year of the program, students receive a strong background in cellular function and biological organisms. Upon completion of the first year, students select a specific area of focus and work on their dissertations with faculty members. In later years, students teach and also complete a test to gain admission as a doctoral candidate. Typical coursework includes:
- Enzyme mechanics
- Stress testing
- Cellular physiology
- Structural equation models
- Cardiac rehabilitation
Popular Career Options
Graduates of a master's degree program in exercise physiology can choose from a wide array of jobs in private or corporate settings. Those with a Ph.D. have the skills to work in a variety of teaching or research careers. Examples of careers available include:
- Physical therapist
- Strength and conditioning coach
- Exercise specialist
- Fitness studies teacher
- Postsecondary teacher
- Strength and conditioning coach
- Exercise physiologist
Employment Outlook and Salary Information
According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), fitness trainers and aerobics instructors held 279,100 jobs in 2014 (www.bls.gov). During 2014-2024, employment for fitness workers is expected to increase 8%, which is about as fast as the national average. This is due in part to an increase in money and time spent on fitness by individuals and businesses. As reported by the BLS, the median hourly salary for fitness trainers and aerobics instructors in May 2015 was $17.39, which amounts to $36,160 annually.
Continuing Education Information
Graduates of a baccalaureate exercise physiology program are eligible to sit for the certification exam from the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (www.asep.org) or the American College of Sports Medicine (www.acsm.org). Both groups offer accreditation programs and allow members to stay current with changes in the exercise physiology industry through newsletters and journals. Graduates can also continue their education with a master's degree program in exercise physiology or exercise science.
In other professions, including that of the exercise specialist, one might find it helpful to obtain a professional credential. The American College of Sports Medicine offers a Certified Clinical Exercise Specialist credential, which requires that an individual pass a multiple-choice exam on topics, such as exercise physiology, creation of exercise programs and patient management (www.acsm.org).
Licensing Requirements and Professional Credentials
An exercise physiologist must have CPR certification and may choose to obtain professional certification through the ASCM. The ACSM's Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist credential requires that an individual have a master's degree, CPR certification and 6000 hours of supervised professional experience. Some careers require that individuals obtain licensure. For example, physical therapists must obtain a license before they are allowed to practice. While licensure requirements may vary depending on location, physical therapists must pass the National Physical Therapy Exam (NPTE), administered by the Federation of State Boards of Physical Therapy (FSBPT) (www.fsbpt.org). The 250-multiple choice question exam covers topics, such as procedures to keep the client and therapist safe, and diagnosis tools and techniques.
Aspiring exercise physiologists can look into degree programs offered at the bachelor's, master's, and doctoral levels that can prepare them for careers in fitness instruction, physical therapy, and more. Graduates must attain CPR certification to work in exercise physiology, and can boost their credentials further by acquiring professional certification through the American Society of Exercise Physiologists or the American College of Sports Medicine.