How to Become an Exercise Physiologist

Written by Coursera • Updated on

An exercise physiologist works with individuals in need of rehabilitation or support to create exercise or treatment plans that help a person reach their goals. Learn about exercise physiologist jobs, exercise physiologist salary information, and more.

[Featured Image] Woman in a pink workout outfit trains a woman in a gray and black workout outfit, who is lifting weights.

Exercise physiologists work with injured or sick patients to create custom treatment and exercise plans to help them recover and reach their health goals.

Not to be confused with fitness trainers or athletic trainers, the primary role of an exercise physiologist is to help improve overall health by assisting patients to work on their body composition, cardiovascular health, flexibility, and much more.

Educational requirements 

Exercise physiologists need at least a bachelor’s degree in exercise physiology or a related field to enter practice. Appropriate degree programs for exercise physiologists include science and health-related courses, such as nutrition, biology, anatomy, kinesiology, nutrition, and clinical work.

Bachelor’s degree 

A bachelor's degree in exercise physiology is preferred for licensed exercise physiologists. However, other suitable degree programs include exercise science, kinesiology, or other health care majors. Though not required for most positions, you can pursue a master's degree program in exercise physiology, which may help you expand your career options within the field. 

Coursework 

The coursework completed by an aspiring exercise physiologist should include basics such as biology, anatomy, kinesiology, and nutrition. More advanced coursework includes echocardiogram interpretation, biomechanics, cardiac rehabilitation, and psychophysiology, among others.

Some certification programs require those with any major other than exercise physiology to complete specific coursework before being eligible to sit for the certification exam. The American Society of Exercise Physiologists (ASEP) for example, requires candidates to complete seven out of these nine specific courses, earning a grade of C or above, before sitting for the Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC) exam: [1]

  • Biomechanics

  • Environmental physiology

  • Exercise and special populations

  • Exercise metabolism

  • Exercise physiology

  • Fitness assessment and prescription

  • Kinesiology

  • Nutrition

  • Research design

It is also required for candidates to have documentation of hands-on laboratory experiences in exercise physiology (or related) laboratories and hold a current ASEP membership.

Certifications and training 

You have several options for exercise physiologists seeking certification. Two different programs offer the major certifications: ASEP and The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). These certifications include:

 

  • Exercise Physiologist Certified (EPC)

  • Certified Exercise Physiologist (EP-C)

  • Certified Clinical Exercise Physiologist (ACSM-CEP)

  • Registered Clinical Exercise Physiologist (RCEP)—You must have at least a master’s degree to earn this certification. 

Certifications granted by the ASEP require the certification holder to complete continuing education courses every five years. Certifications from the ACSM require continuing education courses every three years.

Upon hiring, most employers will require you to possess and maintain Basic Life Support (BLS) or Advanced Life Support (ACLS) certification. Both of these certifications incorporate CPR training.

What skills do I need to work as an exercise physiologist?

Patient care is often a very vulnerable interaction. Exercise physiologists need to be able to effectively care for patients while keeping their emotional well-being in mind, making both technical and human-centered skills extremely important. 

Knowing how to assess and evaluate a patient’s condition properly is crucial. It’s also essential to have knowledge of exercise programs, rehabilitation, and cardiac life support. Exercise physiologists spend a lot of time face-to-face with patients, so it’s crucial to have excellent communication skills, an encouraging demeanor, empathy, patience, problem-solving skills, and the ability to actively listen.

Where do exercise physiologists work?

An exercise physiologist can work in various settings, including hospitals, physical therapy offices, fitness centers, college athletic offices, Veterans Affairs clinics, and on sports team staff. More than half of exercise physiologist jobs are self-employed and carry full-time schedules. 

In medical or clinical settings, primary care providers may refer their patients to exercise physiologists to create exercise regimens for their patients to follow. These regimens can focus on anything from torn ligament pain relief to improving blood pressure or losing weight.

Exercise physiologists develop programs to help athletes reduce injury and minimize recovery time in athletic settings. Sports equipment designers may also hire exercise physiologists to assist in developing the safest, most effective products.  

Exercise physiologists can also work as rehabilitation specialists, coaches, trainers, clinicians, directors, or program coordinators.

Exercise physiology vs. exercise science 

While exercise physiology and exercise science are similar areas of study that focus on improving health and wellness with exercise, the two have their fair share of differences. Exercise science generally focuses on how the human body moves, while exercise physiology focuses on how physical activity affects organs and bodily systems.

Exercise physiologists assess patient fitness by gathering details such as pulse, oxygen saturation, body composition, flexibility, and strength. Then they use that information to design exercise routines for people with specific concerns like injury, illness, or certain athletic goals. 

Salary and job outlook  

According to the US Bureau of Labor Statistics, in May 2021, the average exercise physiologist's salary is $47,940 [2], though salaries range from $36,930 to 76,950. Between 2020 and 2030, the projected growth rate for exercise physiologist jobs is 13 percent [3]. This rate is faster than the average for all occupations and means an estimated 1,500 new jobs are projected to open for exercise physiologists each year.

The demand for exercise physiologists is expected to rise as health care professionals increasingly emphasize exercise as preventive care against chronic disease and a way to improve the overall quality of life.

Possible career pathways as an exercise physiologist

Aside from working as a certified exercise physiologist, studying exercise physiology can prepare you for many other careers. An exercise physiology bachelor’s degree can be a precursor to graduate and professional education in physical therapy, occupational therapy, medicine, nursing, physician assistant studies, rehabilitation health science, and much more.

  • After practicing as a clinical exercise physiologist, it is possible to pursue the position of clinical director.

  • Should you decide you're passionate enough about exercise physiology that you want to teach others, becoming a professor could be a suitable career path for you. Once a tenured professor, there is a possibility to become a department chair or even a dean.

  • A background in exercise physiology makes for a strong personal trainer, lending to the opportunity of either owning or managing your own business or gym.

  • An exercise physiology major is often qualified to work as a physical therapy aide. While working as an aide, you can continue your education and become a licensed physical therapist. From there, you may have the opportunity to work for an established clinic, become a director of a clinic, or even open your own clinic. 

Getting started 

To learn more about the science of exercise before committing to an exercise physiology bachelor's degree, you can find self-paced courses on Coursera that can help prepare you for a career in exercise physiology. Courses such as Introductory Human Physiology and Science of Exercise are good places to start for a foundation in the concepts studied by exercise physiologists.

Exercise physiologists play an essential role in helping people improve their lives. If you love the idea of helping people heal from injuries and prevent chronic illness with exercise, exercise physiology may be a satisfying career for you. 

Related articles

Article sources 

  1. ASEP. “Standards of Practice, https://www.asep.org/organization/practice/.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

  2. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Occupational Outlook Handbook: Exercise Physiologists Pay, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/exercise-physiologists.htm#tab-5.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

  3. US Bureau of Labor Statistics. “Exercise Physiologists Job Outlook, https://www.bls.gov/ooh/healthcare/exercise-physiologists.htm#tab-6.” Accessed April 26, 2022.

Written by Coursera • Updated on

This content has been made available for informational purposes only. Learners are advised to conduct additional research to ensure that courses and other credentials pursued meet their personal, professional, and financial goals.

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