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 client’s abilities 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 2019 and 2029, there are expected to be 2,200 new jobs nationally in this career (Bureau of Labor Statistics 2021). 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 $54,020 on average per year (BLS May 2020). 

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. The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) also accredits programs, and students who have completed an ASEP-accredited program are eligible to sit for the ASEP certification exam. 

Students should ensure that the program they are attending is accredited as accredited 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 studies, 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

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 exam 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 of recommendation to be considered. 

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

Marquette University College of Health Sciences

Students pursuing an undergraduate degree in exercise physiology at Marquette University College of Health Sciences have several options to choose from. They can pick either an exercise physiology track for those entering the field directly post-college, a pre-professional track for those pursuing further education, a direct to a doctor in physical therapy track, or an accelerated master’s of science track. With an eye to what’s next, this program prepares students seamlessly for their future goals.,

As part of this program, all students will earn a basic life support certification including CPR and AED training. Other required coursework includes kinesiology and biomechanics, exercise leadership, anatomy and physiology, and exercise program management. All Marquette University students can choose the exercise physiology and pre-professional tracks without additional admission requirements. There are additional requirements for the direct to DT and accelerated master’s programs. 

  • Location: Milwaukee, WI
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) 
  • Tuition: $44,970 per year

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. However, there are many programs that offer distance learning that can prepare professionals for this career, and some even qualify students for certification. 

Maryville University 

Maryville University offers students the opportunity to complete their bachelor’s of science in exercise science 100 percent online. This 128-semester hour credit program is designed for students who cannot relocate, are currently working, or have family obligations but want to enter the field of exercise science. Students can enter this program directly from high school or as a transfer student from another institution. 

There are two concentrations in this program. They are wellness management and strength and conditioning. Students can choose either concentration or complete general studies. All students must take core courses such as community health, fitness management, care and prevention of injuries, stress management, and adaptive physical activity. 

  • Location:  St. Louis, MO
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $500 per credit 

Concordia University Chicago

Aspiring exercise physiologists who have already completed an undergraduate degree can continue their studies with Concordia University Chicago’s online master’s of applied exercise science. This program can be completed in as little as a year and a half of full-time distance learning coursework. 

The five concentrations to choose from are human movement science, sports nutrition, sports performance training, strength and conditioning, and fitness health promotion. Students can choose to complete a dual degree with just 12 extra credits of coursework.

Concordia University Chicago offers all students a Tuition Promise, whereby a student’s tuition will not increase while they complete their degree as long as they have continuous enrollment. This keeps tuition rates extremely affordable.    

  • Location: Chicago, IL
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $475 per credit

University of North Carolina Wilmington School of Health & Applied Human Sciences

Students interested in applying scientific principles to fitness, health, wellness, and exercise will find the bachelor’s of science in exercise science at the University of North Carolina Wilmington School of Health & Applied Human Sciences to be a good option. This program is offered in a hybrid format, with many of the classes offered online. Students have the flexibility to choose which courses will best suit their needs and help them balance school work, family life, and work. 

Admission requirements for this program include 24 semester hours of coursework at UNC or another institution, prerequisite coursework, and at least a 2.7 GPA. 

  • Location: Wilmington NC
  • Duration: Four years
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $18,508 per year 

Concordia University, St. Paul

The online bachelor’s of arts in exercise science completer degree at Concordia University, St. Paul is designed for adult students who have a busy schedule. This program assumes that students have already completed their general education coursework and focuses exclusively on exercise science-related courses. Classes are taught asynchronously, allowing students to choose when and how they want to complete their coursework. All classes are short eight-week courses. 

Required courses for this program include sports psychology, biomechanics, sports business, applied nutrition, and exercise physiology. Students must also complete an internship in order to graduate. Ninety-five percent of graduates of this program were employed in exercise science within one year of graduating. 

  • Location: St. Paul, MN
  • Duration: Two years
  • Accreditation: Higher Learning Commission (HLC)
  • Tuition: $420 per credit

Liberty University School of Health Sciences

The online master’s in exercise science and wellness at Liberty University School of Health Sciences prepares graduates for a career in helping individuals address wellness, exercise, and health concerns. The fully remote courses are taught by faculty who are experts in biomechanics, physiology, wellness, and science. As Liberty University is a religious school, there are Christian worldviews and biblical principles included in most classes.  

Within the master’s in exercise science, students can choose to concentrate in either fitness and performance or nutrition and wellness. Students complete 15 credits in core coursework and an additional 18 in their desired concentration. Admission requirements include an already completed bachelor’s degree, official transcripts, and a completed application. 

  • Location: Lynchburg, VA
  • Duration: 18 months
  • Accreditation: Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges (SACSCOC)
  • Tuition: $565 per credit 

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 physiologists 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 certified clinical exercise physiologists (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 the 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 certification as an exercise physiologist (ACSM-EP) for those who have completed a bachelor’s degree. The requirements to sit for this exam include at least 21 semester or 28 quarter hours of coursework in exercise science. 

The ACSM also offers a certified clinical exercise physiologist (ACSM-CEP) for those who have completed more training. The requirements to sit for his exam include a master’s degree in clinical exercise physiology or equivalent and 600 hours of hands-on clinical experience or a bachelor’s degree in exercise science-related field and 1,200 hours of hands-on clinical experience. 

Both exams cost $279 for ACSM members and $349 for non-members. 

The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) offers an exercise physiologist certified (EPC) designation to candidates who have a degree in exercise physiology or in a related field and have completed the required coursework. Candidates must be ASEP members in order to sit for this exam. The cost for the exam is $300. Students who have graduated from an ASEP-accredited program receive a discount and the exam is only $50. 

Currently, there are no state licensing requirements for exercise physiologists. However, this can change due to ever-evolving state regulations. Aspiring professionals in this field should check with their state boards to ensure they have the necessary credentials to practice. 

How Much Do Exercise Physiologists Make?

According to the Bureau of Labor and Statistics (BLS 2020), exercise physiologists earn $54,020 per year on average. The percentiles for wages are:

  • 10th percentile: $ 36,070
  • 25th percentile: $42,550
  • 50th percentile (median): $50,280
  • 75th percentile: $62,600
  • 90th percentile: $78,170

Openings in this profession are expected to grow 11 percent nationally between 2019 and 2029, adding 1,500 jobs around the country.

Exercise Physiologist Career Alternatives

Here are few alternatives to a career as an exercise physiologist.

Become a Physical Therapist

Physical therapists provide rehabilitative care to patients to have suffered an injury, have a neurological disorder, or have birth defects. They can also provide preventative care to athletes or to individuals who move a lot for their jobs. Typical duties include assessments, hands-on treatments, facilitating exercises to gain strength, and assigning home exercises to patients. 

  • Typical Education: Doctor of physical therapy (DT)
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: American Board of Physical Therapist Specialties

Become an Athletic Trainer

Professional sports teams, collegiate athletics, and even some high school sports employ athletic trainers to help their athletes get and stay in top shape. Some athletic trainers may work in physical therapy clinics providing care to clients who have an injury. Professionals in this field must have at least a master’s degree. 

  • Typical Education: Master’s degree
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Board of Certification for the Athletic Trainer (BOC) 

Become a Licensed Massage Therapist

Massage therapists provide hands-on therapeutic treatment for clients by manipulating tissue and muscles. They can work to prevent or rehabilitate from injury with a deep tissue massage, or they may provide a more relaxing experience with lighter pressure. They can use a variety of other techniques depending on their training, including acupressure, hot stones, aromatherapy, Thai, or reflexology. 

  • Typical Education: Certificate
  • Licensing or Certifying Organization: Associated Bodywork & Massage Professionals (ABMP)
Kimmy Gustafson

Kimmy Gustafson

Writer

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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