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Exercise Science Education, Schools, and Career Overview

The field of exercise science is a broad discipline that addressees the fitness and health needs of the population as a whole — not only athletes. Exercise scientists — sometimes called exercise physiologists — study the impact of exercise on human health and help to create fitness programs for patients recovering from certain diseases.

In general, the field focuses on movement and the way it impacts function and adapts to change in the body. The subject of exercise science encompasses:

  • The underlying principles of exercise
  • How the body responds to exercise
  • Adjustment in the face of injury
  • The study of multiple aspects of exercise and fitness including anatomy, physiology, kinesiology (the study of movement)
  • The principles of strengthening and muscle training
  • The impact of nutrition on the body

Exercise scientists are educated to be experts in biomechanics and performing fitness assessments. They aim to improve patients' cardiovascular functions, body composition and flexibility, and often work closely with patients' primary care physicians. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), exercise scientists:

  • Analyze patients' medical histories before establishing a regimen
  • Perform fitness tests and other medical evaluations
  • Supervise clinical tests to ensure patient safety

Exercise scientists have many opportunities in the field of health, wellness, fitness training and rehabilitation. People with a degree in exercise science can become fitness or personal trainers, instructors in athletic enhancement programs, or instructors in wellness programs in a variety of settings.

What's the difference between exercise science and sports medicine?

According to the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) in their publication "Careers in Sports Medicine and Exercise Science":

  • Exercise science is the study of movement and how people adapt to maintain functionality.
  • Sports medicine is the medical field focused on the prevention, treatment, and diagnosis of athletic injuries.

So where sports medicine is a field that focuses on the needs of athletes, exercise science is a much broader discipline that looks at the principles of exercise and fitness holistically as it relates to a healthy population.

Many colleges that offer degrees in exercise science also offer degrees in sports medicine. Core instruction in anatomy, physiology, and kinesiology and exercise principles are shared between the two fields and students may find that the two departments combine these classes.

How to Become an Exercise Scientist

In contrast to a degree in sports medicine, which is typically very narrowly focused on the needs of athletes, someone studying exercise science learns a broad and holistic approach to exercise and fitness. This creates career opportunities for graduates of exercise science programs that can include working with both athletes and non-athletes.

Degree Programs

Exercise science degrees are available at all levels: associate, bachelor's and master's. The type of exercise science degree a student needs depends on what he or she wants to do. Students can start with shorter degree programs in order to begin working in the field, while continuing to go to school to advance their educations and create more professional opportunities.

Common coursework

Course offerings in the field of exercise science can vary greatly from one learning institution to another, but most programs focus on a holistic view of health, including normal aging and disease and injury prevention. Nearly all students find that their education program includes instruction in the basic principles of:

  • Anatomy
  • Physiology
  • Kinesiology
  • Nutrition

Choosing courses that emphasize sports medicine when studying exercise science can allow a student to look at exercise and fitness from the standpoint of both the athlete and non-athlete.

Associate degree programs: Programs at this level usually take two years to complete. People with associate degrees in exercise science often become fitness or personal trainers or group exercise instructors. Fitness and exercise trainers can work in settings where the population as a whole needs their expertise, such as health clubs, or they may work for organizations that train people for competition as in triathlon or road biking clubs.

There are many advanced degrees that someone with an associate degree in exercise science can pursue.

Bachelor's degree programs: Students in four-year bachelor's programs can expect their instruction to be more comprehensive than what they may have experience in associate programs. For example, a single semester seminar class for an associate degree program may be presented as a more thorough class split into two semesters for the bachelor's degree program. Additional classes at the bachelor's level might include:

  • Teaching/coaching principles
  • Sports psychology or the psychology of fitness
  • Stress management
  • Alternative medicine
  • Legal and ethical considerations in sports/exercise
  • Personal health and wellness
  • Current issues and policy in exercise and fitness

Graduates with bachelor's degrees in exercise science can become fitness directors in company or private wellness programs. A bachelor's degree paired with a teaching certification allows an exercise scientist to teach physical education or coach in a school setting.

Graduates from exercise science programs may choose to pair their bachelor's degrees with other bachelor-level degrees, such as dietetics, to become sports or exercise nutritionists.

Master's degree programs: Programs at this level are designed to help graduates pursue specialized areas within the broader field. For example:

  • Master's degrees paired with specialty certifications can open doors to strength and conditioning coaching positions at all levels of athletic competition.
  • A master's in exercise science can pave the way for moving into a rehabilitation profession, such as physical or occupational therapy.
  • A master's degree can qualify a graduate to pursue specialty certification as a cardiopulmonary rehabilitation specialist or an occupational physiologist or ergonomic specialist.

Earning a master's degree in exercise science may also meet the qualifications for teaching at the junior college level.

Internships

Because the principles of exercise science only exist to be applied to real people, at least one internship is required at nearly all programs. The American Medical Association recognizes the field of exercise science as a provider of allied health care services, and includes an internship in their education program guidelines. The internship can be in a variety of settings including:

  • Sports medicine centers
  • Rehabilitation units
  • Athletic departments

Departments typically have coordinators designated to assist with field placement for internships and to ensure that the setting meets the clinical requirements and that the student can attain the necessary number of contact hours.

Schools

Many exercise science schools are now offering some or all of their course selections online. These programs typically include web-based lectures and online homework assignments and tests. While an internship may still be required in an online program, a coordinator should be available to assist students with finding local opportunities to fulfill this requirement.

Certification and Licensure

Many jobs in the industry of health and fitness can be enhanced with specialty certifications, although few states require a license to work in these areas. Graduates from exercise science programs who use their degrees to move into more specialized programs, like physical or occupational therapy, or cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, usually are required to pass national examinations and state licensure.

A variety of certifications are offered through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) and other organizations. The education requirements for these vary, with some requiring only associate degrees, and others requiring more advanced education up to and including master's degrees. ACSM's certifications for exercise physiologists include:

  • The Certified Clinical Exercise Specialists (for bachelor's degree holders)
  • The Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (for master's degree holders)

As of 2014, only a few states require exercise physiologists to be licensed, but according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), several more are considering legislation that could establish licensing requirements. Most states that require licensure accept national certificates like the American Society of Exercise Physiologists' Exercise Physiologists Certified certificate, which requires one to earn at least a bachelor's degree, pass an exam and complete continuing education courses periodically.

Career Advancement

An initial degree in exercise science can pave the way for more advanced education in the areas of:

  • Exercise physiology
  • Biomechanics
  • Physical or occupational therapy
  • Sports nutrition

Some individuals with an exercise science degree go on to study medicine, often choosing to become physiatrists — doctors who specialize in physical medicine rehabilitation.

Exercise scientists with some business training may assume management roles that allow them to mentor less experienced colleagues. Some alternately choose to eventually specialize in athletics.

Career Outlook and Salary Information

Work settings are hugely varied for people with exercise science careers. Personal and fitness trainers typically work in health clubs, ranging from small private clubs to large busy public centers. Someone with a degree in exercise science may also find employment in a large manufacturing plant or high-tech software company, as businesses respond to research pointing to the effectiveness of a healthy workforce by hiring professionals to be on-site fitness directors.

Hospitals' and physicians' continued emphasis on exercise and preventive care as a key part of patient treatment may help sustain exercise scientists' numbers, though competition for open positions is expected to be fierce.

People who use their exercise science degree as the launching pad for additional degrees in physical or occupational therapy have the full array of health care centers available to them, including hospitals, private clinics, rehabilitation centers, as well as sports medicine centers.

Graduates with advanced degrees in exercise science who specialize in sports medicine can also look for careers with athletic programs based in high schools, colleges or professional athletic organizations.

CareerAnnual Mean WageBottom 10% Annual WageTop 10% Annual Wage
Exercise Physiologists$54,730$34,250$78,410
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Earnings tend to vary from one position to the next, however, depending on a number of factors. Since earnings often increase with education, pursuing a higher degree may result in better earnings. Experienced exercise scientists may also earn more than their junior colleagues.

Location can drive earnings, too, since salaries tend to increase with cost of living and regional demand for qualified workers.

CareerTotal EmploymentProjected Job Growth Rate
Exercise Physiologists6,30012.9%
Source: 2016 Occupational Employment Statistics and 2016-26 Employment Projections, Bureau of Labor Statistics, BLS.gov.

Professional Resources

Sources:

  • Athletic Trainers and Exercise Physiologists, Occupational Outlook Handbook, Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2012, http://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/athletic-trainers-and-exercise-physiologists.htm
  • The American Society of Exercise Physiologists, asep.org
  • The American College of Sports Medicine, acsm.org

Exercise Science Schools