Exercise Science

What is exercise science?

While the first thing many people think of when they hear the word "exercise" is "sports," the field of exercise science is a broad discipline that address the fitness and health needs of the population as a whole and is not limited only to athletes. It is a field of study that focuses on movement and the way it impacts function and adapts to change in the body. Exercise science encompasses the underlying principles of exercise, response to exercise, and adjustment in the face of injury. It also involves the study of multiple aspects of exercise and fitness including anatomy, physiology, kinesiology (the study of movement), the principles of strengthening and muscle training, and the impact of nutrition on the body. Many programs include courses to teach a holistic view of health, including normal aging and disease and injury prevention. Exercise scientists are also the recognized experts in biomechanics and performing fitness assessments.

What does an exercise scientist do?

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. Exercise science graduates have a sophisticated understanding of the body and how it responds to exercises in the healthy population, and their contribution to successful health and fitness is significant. Environments that specialize in exercise or rehabilitation are in need of professionals with this particular knowledge, and more frequently industries that are not traditionally related to health care are beginning to appreciate the benefit of overall health and fitness and are seeking the professional input of these graduates.

What opportunities do I have for advancing my career?

A degree in exercise science can be a pathway to many other career opportunities. Degrees in exercise science are available at the associate's, bachelor's and master's level, and the degree will determine what opportunities a candidate is eligible for. An initial degree in exercise science paves the way for more advanced education in the areas of exercise physiology, biomechanics, physical or occupational therapy, or sports nutrition. The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) offers advanced clinical certifications for students who have received bachelor's or master's degrees in the exercise science field, including Clinical Exercise Specialist and Clinical Exercise Physiologist. Some individuals with an exercise science degree go on to study medicine, often choosing to become physiatrists, doctors who specialize in rehabilitative medicine. A master's degree can also qualify a graduate to pursue specialty certification as a cardiopulmonary rehabilitation specialist. An occupational physiologist or ergonomic specialist is a professional who analyzes work settings and conditions and teaches optimal body mechanics for injury prevention, and a master's degree in exercises science can ultimately lead to this career as well.

Do I need a license or certification to work in the field of exercise science?

Many jobs in the industry of health and fitness can be enhanced with specialty certifications, including personal training and group exercise instruction, although few states require a license to work in these areas. 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's degrees, and some requiring more advanced education up to and including master's degrees. Requirements for education-based certifications through the ACSM also require attendance at college or university programs that have been accredited by the Committee on the Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences. Careers in industries that require more advanced educations often have both license and certification requirements.

Who regulates the industry of exercise science?

Exercise science is not specifically regulated or overseen by any one agency. The profession is recognized by the American Medical Association as part of the allied health industry, so recommendations are made for curriculum and internships. The American College of Sports Medicine issues certifications for those who want to pursue jobs where an employer seeks evidence of certain qualifications. The Committee of Accreditation for the Exercise Sciences is one agency that accredits college and university programs, and some specialty credentials require that students have degrees from accredited learning institutions. Graduates from exercise science programs who use their degrees to move into more specialized programs, like physical or occupational therapy, or cardiopulmonary rehabilitation, will find that criteria for employment includes passing national examinations and state licensure.

How do I decide what route is best for me?

The best thing to do when considering a career in an area that offers a wide variety of choices is to do some personal research. Talk to exercise specialists in your area, ranging from the trainers at the local health club, to the sports medicine specialists in a rehabilitation center. Ask them what they enjoy most about their jobs, and ask them how they were qualified to do it. What level of education did they get, and how do they keep their knowledge base current? If possible, volunteer at a local center to get a feel for how the workday goes and what kinds of clients are seen. Your research should include learning about the eligibility criteria for your long-term exercise science career goals, including accreditation requirements, state licensure and certification guidelines.

What is an exercise scientist?

Exercise scientists -- sometimes called exercise physiologists -- study the impact of exercise on human health, and help create fitness programs for patients recovering from certain diseases. Exercise scientists aim to improve patients' cardiovascular functions, body composition and flexibility. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (bls.gov), exercise scientists also analyze patients' medical histories before establishing a regimen, perform fitness tests and other medical evaluations, and supervise clinical tests to ensure patient safety. They tend to work closely with patients' primary care physicians.

What is an exercise scientist's salary?

Bls.gov reports that in 2012 exercise physiologists earned more than the national median salary for all U.S. workers. Earnings tend to vary from one position to the next, however, depending on a number of factors. For example, bls.gov notes that these professionals must earn at least a bachelor's degree in exercise science or a related field, but some choose to earn master's degrees instead. Since earnings often increase with education, pursuing the 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.

Is it difficult to find a job as an exercise scientist?

Demand for exercise physiologists will grow about as fast as the average for all professions between 2012 and 2022 according to bls.gov. Hospitals' and physicians' continued emphasis on exercise and preventive care as a key part of patient treatment will help sustain exercise scientists' numbers, though competition for open positions is expected to be fierce.

Is there room for advancement as an exercise scientist?

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. According to bls.gov, athletic trainers earn the same type of degrees as exercise scientists, but go on to meet other state-specific licensing criteria. Though athletic trainers earn just slightly less on average than exercise scientists, bls.gov projects that they may be in significantly greater demand over the next decade.

Do exercise scientists need to be licensed or certified?

As of 2014, only a few states require exercise physiologists to be licensed, but according to bls.gov, several more are considering legislation that could establish licensing requirements soon. Most states that do require licensure accept national certificates like the American Society of Exercise Psychologists' Exercise Physiologists Certified certificate, which requires one to earn at least a bachelor's degree, pass an exam and complete continuing education courses periodically. The American College of Sports Medicine also offers certifications for exercise physiologists, including the Certified Clinical Exercise Specialists for bachelor's degree holders, and the Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist for master's degree holders.

How do I decide 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 defined by the ACSM as the medical field focused on the prevention, treatment, and diagnosis of athletic injuries. So where sports medicine is a focused career that addresses 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.

What is the coursework like in an exercise science degree program?

Course offerings in the field of exercise science can vary greatly from one learning institution to another, but nearly all students will find that their educations include instruction in the basic principles of anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, nutrition and injury prevention.

Students in bachelor's programs will find their instruction more comprehensive than those in associate's programs, and a single semester seminar class for an associate's degree candidate may be presented as a more thorough class split into two semesters for the bachelor's degree candidate. 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 and current issues and policy in exercise and fitness.

At the Master of Science educational level, classes may include research principles of advanced biomechanics and musculoskeletal rehabilitation. Graduates of these exercise science degree programs are professionals who will assume roles of greater responsibility for health, wellness and instruction so topics are taught with more advanced content.

Can I build on my degree in exercise science?

Exercise science degrees are available at all levels: associate's, bachelor's and master's. This means that students can complete shorter degree programs and begin working in the field, while continuing to go to school to advance their educations and create more professional opportunities. For instance, graduates with associate's degrees in exercise science can seek employment as health or fitness instructors. Then, while maintaining employment in the field and gaining valuable practical experience, they can pursue bachelor's or master's degrees in pursuit of their long-term exercise science career goals.

There are many advanced degrees that someone with an associate or bachelor's degree in exercise science can pursue. In addition to master's level studies in the field of exercise science itself, a graduate would be an excellent candidate to get a master's degree in physical or occupational therapy. 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.

Is there any fieldwork involved?

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 or athletic departments. All departments have coordinators designated to assist with field placement for internships and ensure that the setting meets the clinical requirements and that the student will attain the necessary number of contact hours.

Can I get my exercise science degree online?

In response to the growing demand for quality educations from students that are far from traditional colleges, or who are trying to work an education into lives that are already busy with jobs, many colleges and universities are offering more and more courses online. 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 will still be required in an online program, a program will often have a coordinator available to assist students with finding local opportunities to fulfill this requirement.

I'm very interested in the science of sports. Does an exercise science degree work for me?

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.

The American College of Sports Medicine states that specific exercise science careers cannot be clearly defined, because the focus that a student chooses while studying these areas will determine where a graduate will look for work far more than the degree itself will. This means that a graduate with an exercise science degree can choose coursework with a strong sports medicine orientation but still get the benefit of a program that teaches principles that can be applied to everyone.

What jobs are available with a sports emphasis in exercise science?

Choosing courses that emphasize sports medicine when studying exercise science allows a graduate to look at exercise and fitness from the standpoint of both the athlete and non-athlete. People with associate's degrees in Exercise science often become fitness or personal trainers or group exercise instructors, and many choose to pursue certification in these areas through the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) or other certification agency. 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.

Graduates with bachelor's degrees in exercise science can become fitness directors in company or private wellness programs, and again, certification can be attained in this area. A bachelor's degree paired with a teaching certification allows an exercise scientist to teach physical education or coach in a school setting. Candidates with a mater's degree can choose to pair exercise science coursework with classes that will qualify them to be an exercise physiologist, which is a professional who specializes in the cardiopulmonary and metabolic aspects of exercise.

A master's degree allows a candidate to teach at the junior college level. Master's degrees paired with specialty certifications open doors to strength and conditioning coaching positions at all levels of athletic competition. Using an exercise science degree to move into one of the rehabilitation professions, such as Physical or Occupational Therapy, can lead to employment in sports clinics where treatment can include both professional and amateur athletes. Special skills and knowledge are necessary to treat the unique types of injuries an athlete suffers.

What kinds of settings would I work in with an exercise science degree?

Work settings are hugely varied for people with exercise science careers. Personal and fitness trainers typically work in health clubs, and these can range from small private clubs to large busy centers that are open to the public. Many larger businesses are responding to recent research that points to the effectiveness of a healthy workforce and are hiring professionals to be on-site fitness directors. This means that someone with a degree in exercise science could find employment in a large manufacturing plant or high-tech software company.

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 with a focus in sports medicine can also look for careers with athletic programs based in high schools, colleges or professional athletic organizations.

What kind of education do I need for a career in exercise science?

While degrees in the field of exercise science are available at the associate's, bachelor's and master's level, the degree a student needs depends on what he or she wants to do. If the professional goal is to be a highly qualified fitness instructor or exercise trainer for the general population, an associate's or bachelor's degree will accomplish this. Students interested in more advanced clinical professions in areas of sports medicine or injury management will need to complete bachelor's or master's programs that may move from exercise science into a specialty area.

The exercise science degree program you need in order to get your career started is listed below among many exercise science schools, colleges, and universities. This page was designed to provide you a resource to find what you need quickly and efficiently. Request information from several of the exercise science schools, colleges, and universities below in order to find the right program for you.


  • 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