Exercise Physiologist

Knowing how to improve or maintain fitness is a challenging proposition, especially after an injury or hospitalization. Thankfully, there are trained exercise physiologists nationwide with extensive education on how to help patients and clients meet their fitness and mobility goals.

Exercise physiologists are healthcare professionals who develop customized exercise plans for patients or clients. They utilize medical equipment to perform fitness and stress tests. They then analyze the data collected to evaluate the abilities of the client in order to set fitness goals. Often, exercise physiologists work with the patient to teach them the exercises. They perform periodic assessments to ensure the program is working and that the client is on track to meeting their goals.

Growth for jobs in the field of exercise physiology is set to outpace the national average. Between 2018 and 2028, there is expected to be 1,500 new jobs nationally in this career (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2019). More than half of exercise physiologists are self-employed while the rest work in rehabilitation centers, clinics, corporate wellness programs, and hospitals. Professionals in this field can expect to earn $49,270 on average per year (BLS 2019).

Continue reading to learn more about a career as an exercise physiologist, including licensing options, degree programs, job duties, and steps needed to enter this field.

Exercise Physiologist Specializations & Degree Types

Exercise physiologists generally have obtained a bachelor’s degree in exercise science, exercise physiology, or a related health science field such as kinesiology. Often the programs will include concentrations such as human performance, strength and conditioning, or sports medicine.

Master’s degrees are also an option and they can be clinical (for those who want to work with acute or chronic injuries under the direction of a physician) or applied (for professionals who want to work with healthy individuals to prevent illness or disease).

Admissions Requirements for Exercise Physiology Programs

Exercise physiology programs require that students have graduated from high school or completed a GED in order to apply for admission. While requirements will vary from institution to institution, most schools expect that students have completed high school math, English, and science courses. AP or college credit courses will give students an advantage when starting school because they will have already earned credits.

Some schools, such as South Dakota State, require that students complete prerequisite general education courses for the first two years at college and then apply to be admitted to the program for the last two years.

Master’s programs require students to have completed an undergraduate degree and generally expect some work experience, GRE scores, a competitive GPA, letters of reference, essays, and other materials.

Exercise Physiology Program Accreditation

The Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP) is the leading authority in accrediting exercise physiology and exercise science programs. Students should ensure that the program they are attending is accredited, as approved programs meet standardized programmatic requirements ensuring that students receive similar education at different institutions. Also, accredited institutions make transferring credits between institutions easier should the student need to switch schools. Accreditation can also make licensing easier as the program is of a minimum standard.

Whether or not an aspiring exercise physiologist attends a CAAHEP-approved program, they should ensure that all of their institutions of choice have been accredited by a reputable authority—one which has been recognized by the U.S. Department of Education’s Commission for Higher Education Accreditation (CHEA).

On-Campus Exercise Physiology Degree Programs

University of New England, Westbrook – College of Health Professions

The University of New England’s bachelor of science (BS) in applied exercise science combines classroom lectures with hands-on learning to provide students with a practical education that prepares them to take the national certification tests. Students who complete this program will be ready for entry-level employment in the field of exercise physiology.

Over 90 percent of graduating students in 2017 were employed or accepted to graduate school within six months of graduating. They also offer master’s degrees and guarantee provisional admission to graduating undergraduate students who meet programmatic standards.

  • Location: Portland, ME
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $37,390 per year

South Dakota State – College of Education and Human Sciences

If a student is seeking employment in the field of exercise physiology, a bachelor’s of science in exercise science at South Dakota State can prepare them. This program’s goal is to create professionals who have a strong working understanding of the science behind movement and how it can be used to help patients and clients meet their activity goals. Students in this program have the opportunity to sit for the certified exercise physiologist exam offered through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) during their final year.

Admission is competitive and students will need to complete prerequisite courses in biology, anatomy, and physiology prior to applying. Applications to the major can be submitted at the end of the student’s sophomore year and must include letters of recommendation and answers to the self-evaluation questions.

  • Location: Brookings, SD
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $6,285 per year

Bloomsburg University – College of Science and Technology

A master of science (MS) in exercise science from Bloomsburg University will prepare students for professional careers, doctoral study, or research opportunities in the field. Students can gain first-hand experience writing grant proposals and often graduate with one or more published academic papers.

Courses required to complete the program include exercise nutrition and metabolism, current issues in exercise science, and the mechanics of human movement. Either a practicum, which provides hands-on learning, or a thesis, which develops a student’s research skills, is also required for graduation.

Admission requirements include an undergraduate degree in biology or health sciences with a 3.0 GPA or higher and prerequisite courses in anatomy, physiology, and exercise physiology.

  • Location: Bloomsburg, PA
  • Duration: One to two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $774 per credit-hour

University of Louisville – College of Education and Human Development

At the University of Louisville, faculty help students in the master of science (MS) in exercise physiology program become high-quality scientists who excel at research, theory, and application of physiological mechanisms. Students can choose to complete a thesis or a non-thesis program. A concentration in strength and conditioning is also an option.

The curriculum gives students the background and education to sit for the national certification exams from the ACSM and the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA). In 2019, 100 percent of students who took a national exams passed. Students need to apply for admission by March 1st for a fall start-date and will need to submit transcripts, GRE scores, and three letters or recommendation to be considered.

  • Location: Louisville, KY
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Commission on Accreditation of Allied Health Education Programs (CAAHEP)
  • Tuition: $723 per credit

Online or Hybrid Exercise Physiology Degree Programs

CAAHEP requires that accredited exercise science and exercise physiology programs culminate with an internship. Due to this requirement, there are no CAAHEP programs that offer distance learning. There may be options to complete prerequisites at an accredited institution and transfer to on-campus program for the program-specific courses and internships. Also, some of the programs profiled above do offer some coursework (especially general education courses) online.

How Long Does it Take to Become an Exercise Physiologist?

On average, it takes a little more than four postsecondary years to become an exercise physiologist. Students can sit for their licensing exams without work experience making the path towards becoming a fully licensed professional seamless.

How To Become an Exercise Physiologist – Step-by-Step Guide

Step 1: Graduate from High School or Complete a GED Program (Four Years)

Undergraduate programs require that students have completed high school or obtained a GED prior to admission. Students who want to pursue this career will find that courses in science, psychology, and math will help prepare them for undergraduate studies. High school AP courses and college credit classes can give students an advantage by helping them complete college prerequisites before graduating.

Step 2: Complete a Bachelor’s Degree (Four Years)

Most exercise physiologists have completed a four-year bachelor’s of science in exercise science, exercise physiology, or kinesiology. Many programs have practicum or internship requirements that will give students hands-on experience.

Step 3: Complete CPR Certification (Timelines Vary)

Employers and certification bodies will often require exercise physiologist to obtain and maintain CPR certification. The certification should include a hands on component. The Red Cross offers classes nationwide, among other organizations.

Step 4: Obtain Professional Certification (Timelines Vary)

Professionals can pursue certification through two main entities: the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers the exercise physiologist (EP) credential and the American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) provides the exercise physiologist certified (EPC) designation.

Step 5: Secure Entry-Level Employment in the Field (Timelines Vary)

Aspiring exercise physiologists can secure entry-level employment at hospitals, government offices, clinics, and corporate wellness programs. Job boards at ASCM and ASEP are great places to start the job search.

Step 6: Pursue a Master’s Degree (Optional, One to Two Years)

Professionals in this field looking to stand out for advancement opportunities or new jobs can complete a master’s degree in exercise science, kinesiology, or exercise physiology. Upon completion of a master’s degree, students can sit for the exam to become a certified clinical exercise physiologist (ACSM-CEP)—the most advanced credential in the field.

What Do Exercise Physiologists Do?

Exercise physiologists work in clinics, corporate wellness programs, rehabilitation facilities, hospitals, and government agencies. Their job duties can include:

  • Evaluate a patient or client’s medical history to assess risk of injury, determine the best exercises, and prepare a fitness regime
  • Utilize medical equipment to perform fitness and stress tests
  • Analyze data collected to evaluate the abilities of the client or patient
  • Create customized exercise programs to improve patient or client health
  • Use patient health indicators such as heart rate, blood pressure, and pulse to inform and adapt the fitness program
  • Educate clients about physical fitness
  • Assist clients or patients in performing their prescribed exercises

Exercise Physiology Certifications & Licensure

Exercise physiologists have two licensing bodies. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers exercise physiologist (ACSM-EP) certification for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree or as certified clinical exercise physiologist (ACSM-CEP) for those who have completed a master’s. The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) offers an exercise physiologist certified (EPC) designation to qualified candidates who pass their exams.

Test fees range from $50 to $379, depending on what institution the candidate graduated from and what, if any, professional association they belong to. The ACSM-EP test takes place in an authorized testing center and takes about four hours to complete. The ASEP-EPC test is completely online and students can take the three-hour test whenever they feel ready.

Exercise Physiologist Salary

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS 2019), exercise physiologists in the 10th percentile made $34,410 (and below) and those in the 90th percentile averaged $78,810 (and above) for their annual wages. The median annual wage was $49,270 in May of 2018. This profession is expected to grow 10 percent nationally, between 2018 and 2028, adding 1,500 jobs around the country.

Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson


Kimmy is a freelance writer with extensive experience writing about healthcare careers and education. She has worked in public health, at health-focused nonprofits, and as a Spanish interpreter for doctor’s offices and hospitals. She has a passion for learning and that drives her to stay up to date on the latest trends in healthcare. When not writing or researching, she can be found pursuing her passions of nutrition and an active outdoors lifestyle.

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