Your Guide to Becoming an Exercise Physiologist

Written by Coursera • Updated on

Learn about all about what a exercise physiologist is, salary information, and how to become one.

[Featured image] An exercise physiologist plays tennis with a client in a wheelchair.

Have you ever been injured? Suffered from a chronic disease? Those who have, especially athletes, might go see an exercise physiologist to receive an exercise regimen designed specifically for you to improve your flexibility and cardiovascular health.

As an exercise physiologist, you'll have the rewarding satisfaction of helping athletes and other individuals recover from injuries and improve their performance over time.

Here's what you need to know to become an exercise physiologist.

What is an exercise physiologist?

Exercise physiologists work with injured or sick patients to create custom treatment and exercise plans to help them recover and reach their health goals. They may work with athletes to improve their performance and overall well-being. They also rehabilitate individuals after chronic illnesses or conditions, such as disabilities.

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

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]. Between 2021 and 2031, the projected growth rate for exercise physiologist jobs is 9 percent [2]. This rate is faster than the average for all occupations and means an estimated 1,900 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.

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.

And while it is not required for most positions, you can pursue a master's degree in exercise physiology, which may help you expand your career options within the field. 

Read more: How to Get a Bachelor's Degree 

Coursework 

As an aspiring exercise physiologist, you'll take coursework in 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 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.

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. It is a broad topic that includes strength, nutrition, and physical education. Exercise physiology focuses more on how physical activity affects organs and bodily systems, and the body's response to that activity.

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Skills needed to become an exercise physiologist

Patient care is often a very vulnerable interaction. Exercise physiologists need to effectively care for patients while considering their emotional well-being, so possessing both technical and workplace skills is vital. 

Knowing how to assess and evaluate a patient’s condition is a crucial technical skill. It’s also essential to have knowledge of exercise programs, rehabilitation, and cardiac life support. Exercise physiologists also spend a lot of time face-to-face with patients, so they must have communication skills, empathy, patience, problem-solving skills, and active listening.

Read more: What Is Effective Communication? Skills for Work, School, and Life

Where they work

An exercise physiologist can work in various settings, including hospitals, physical therapy offices, fitness centers, college athletic offices, and sports team staff. More than half of exercise physiologist jobs are self-employed with 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, so a sports equipment company's designer might receive consulting from an hire exercise physiologists to assist in developing safe, effective products.  

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

Possible career pathways for exercise physiologists

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

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

  • Exercise physiology professor: 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. You'll need at least a master's degree for this.

  • Personal trainer: A background in exercise physiology makes for a strong personal trainer, creating opportunities to become a small business owner if you want to manage your own business or gym.

  • Physical therapy aide: Studying for an exercise physiology bachelor's degree qualifies you to become a physical therapy aide. While working as an aide, you can continue your education and become a licensed physical therapist.

Read more: How to Become a Physical Therapist

Get started in health care today

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.

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Introductory Human Physiology

In this course, students learn to recognize and to apply the basic concepts that govern integrated body function (as an intact organism) in the body's nine ...

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Average time: 1 month(s)

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Skills you'll build:

Metabolic Pathways, Biology, Organ Systems, Medicine

Article sources

1

ASEP. “Standards of Practice, https://www.asep.org/organization/practice/.” Accessed January 19, 2023.

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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